I’m a little late here, aren’t I? I’m only dealing with this topic because it’s been such an internet cause célèbre. That’s an interesting phenomenon in itself, illustrating the way that a meme spreads.
And I’ll get this out of the way at the outset, too: I don’t like big-game trophy hunting. It’s one of the last things on earth I’d ever do, probably even somewhat behind skydiving, and that’s saying a lot. But if a certain country has declared it legal, and people follow the laws, it seems to me that it’s okay, and if you’re really against the practice and really incensed about it then lobby and petition that country to change its laws.
But before you do, read Maetenloch at Ace’s on why killing Cecil helps more lions to survive in Africa rather than hurting them. It’s quite convincing.
The case against Palmer the Hemingwayesque dentist who killed the cuddly Cecil the lion in order to mount his head as a trophy turns on whether the legalities were followed, and by whom, and what Palmer knew when it occurred. That is murky at present, but my guess is that the guides on whom Palmer relied knew what they were doing and knew it was probably illegal, but he didn’t, and that the responsibility is theirs.
What interests me most, however, is the public furor over the incident, when Cecil is one of hundreds of lions hunted recently in Zimbabwe without all that much of a fuss, although a fuss is certainly being raised now:
Cecil the Lion’s killing made him a household name, but he was at least the 23rd lion that scientists from Oxford University have been tracking in Zimbabwe recently only to see its life cut short by illegal hunting.
“Cecil was by no means the first lion to leave Hwange National Park and be shot, or to be killed illegally,” says professor David Macdonald, the director of the 20-year-old Oxford science program that is focused around the sprawling park.
The number of lions being killed across broader Zimbabwe is even more dramatic. Between 1999 and 2009, 800 lions were killed in legal hunts in the country, on top of what was likely an even greater number that were killed illegally.
It’s an interesting article. Zimbabwe, a dangerous place for humans, too, doesn’t seem to be uniquely bad for lions compared to several other African countries. In 2000, when the lion population had fallen in Zimbabwe, the country suspended legal lion-hunting for a few years until the numbers came back up. Trophy-hunting brings in fairly big bucks to the country’s economy as well. But in response to Cecil’s death and the resulting furor, the Zimbabwean authorities have suspended legal lion-hunting for now, and have thrown in a ban on hunting leopards and elephants for good measure.
A fact that might surprise most people is that some conservationists support legal trophy hunting (this also ties into Maetenloch’s post):
Supporters say regulated hunts raise much-needed money for conservation and help manage populations, since game officials typically try to make sure hunters target animals that are no longer able to breed or that might inhibit the reproduction of others around them.
Earlier this year, the Dallas Safari Club auctioned off a permit to shoot a black rhino and used the proceeds for conservation. The club did not have anyone available for comment Wednesday but said in a statement: “Lawful, ethical, vigilant hunters play an important role in public acceptance of sustainable hunting as a vital tool for modern wildlife conservation and management.” Club president Ben Carter previously told National Geographic that regulated trophy hunting is a tool that wildlife managers use to keep animal populations healthy and strong. “By removing counterproductive individuals from a herd, [populations] can actually grow,” Carter said.
The counter-arguments go like this:
Other hunters are taking a closer look at a practice that critics say is prone to corruption, fuels demand for black market wildlife products, and can be too hard to enforce on the ground, leaving lions like Cecil to end up as collateral damage.
I would say that just about anything in Zimbabwe is “prone to corruption,” and the demand for illegal lion hunts will probably not diminish all that much if the legal ones are abolished.
My strong suspicion is that if Palmer had killed some unstoried and unnamed lion we wouldn’t be hearing a whisper about it right now. But he killed Cecil, everybody’s favorite and one of the few lions the public had given a name. What was so special about Cecil? It appears that his fame rested on two factors. The first is that he was very very photogenic, with a classic lion “look,” regal and large. The second and not unrelated fact is that he was unafraid of humans and let them get close enough to him to regularly photograph him in all his leonine splendor.
I don’t mean to libel Cecil, especially now that he’s gone, but doesn’t that trait of being unafraid of humans constitute a potential danger, because even photogenic lions are wild and powerful predators after all, and people shouldn’t feel so comfortable with them that they are relaxed enough to come close to them? That’s not really Cecil’s fault, but isn’t it still the case? (Calling all lion experts.)
For example, in this recent incident in which a lioness killed an American tourist in South Africa (and which attracted some internet attention but not as much as Cecil’s death), the focus of attention seemed mostly to be critical of the woman killed and defensive towards the lion. Her mistake appears to have been the prohibited rolling down of her car window in order to take a photo, and her death underscored the fact that the magnificent beasts are inherently dangerous.
And that’s not just to humans, but to other wildlife. It is part of the natural order of things, of course; “nature red in tooth and claw.” And it’s very good to remember this if you have any intention of being around lions, whatever your species:
“Almost any organism around lions might be a potential prey item, and for people to think that they are an exception is folly,” says Luke Dollar, program director for National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.
“I would imagine that every other primate that co-exists with big cats is acutely aware of the position they hold relative to the top predators of the world.”
Dollar says danger arises when we allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security in the presence of lions or other carnivores.
And therein lies a clue as to why some people like to hunt lions for trophies. Human weaponry gives mankind a leg up, as it were, on the creatures that otherwise dominate all other animals, and give hunters a chance to assert some dominance of their own. Lions hunt, too, but they hunt for food, and humans hunt lions for other reasons than food.
I wrote that lions hunt for food, and mostly they do (that’s generally true of humans who hunt as well, although not when humans hunt lions these days). But it turns out that lions sometimes resemble humans more than one might think even in this regard, because male lions don’t hunt for food (for example, it is routine for rival male lions to kill the cubs of vanquished or dead previous male leaders).
It is female lions that are the hunters for food; male lions such as Cecil are the protectors of territory:
Males defend their territory, be it open woodland or scrub, through urinating to mark the area, roaring to promote fear and literally chasing off any intruders. Their main competition is spotted hyenas that often go for the same prey as lions. These animals will fight and steal each other’s food. This warfare goes beyond food; it is also the problem of territorial boundaries being crossed. Lions can be extremely aggressive and have been seen hunting hyenas, killing them and not eating their prey. They dominate and promote fear in other animals, such as cheetahs and leopards, so that they do not prey the same time that lions do. Males eat the prey first despite the females usually catching it.
The uproar over Cecil ignores all of this, as uproars often do.