Cecil the lion didn’t have to die: Trophy hunting hurts Africa’s ecosystems and economies

Animal trophies are seen at the entrance of a taxidermy studio in Pretoria, South Africa.
Animal trophies are seen at the entrance of a taxidermy studio in Pretoria, South Africa.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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Cecil the lion was one of Hwange National Park’s most notable residents. The 13-year-old Zimbabwean lion was not just a major tourist attraction, but a national treasure of sorts. He died on July 1, 2015, when Hwange officials discovered the cat had been shot and killed by a foreign trophy hunter.

According to The Telegraph, “Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, is believed to have paid around £35,000 ($54,613) to shoot and kill the much-loved lion with a bow and arrow.” Palmer was escorted by Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter affiliated with Bushman Safaris, operating out of the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo.

Conservation groups in Zimbabwe have understandably reacted with anger, largely due to the way Cecil was killed: he was lured out of the national park—a protected area—and dispatched with a crossbow, a method considered inhumane by most conservationists and animal-rights activists. There are also several concerns about the legality of the hunt.

Cecil was reportedly lured out of the park at night, shot and wounded by Palmer, and only killed by the pair 40 hours later, by rifle, from the safety of a truck. They stopped to pose for a gruesome portrait with Cecil’s corpse before beheading and skinning him.

“Both the professional hunter and land owner had no permit or quota to justify the offtake of the lion and therefore are liable for the illegal hunt,” a joint press statement by Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe reads. Bronkhorst is now facing criminal charges, and will appear in front of a Hwange court on Wednesday, July 29.

Locals are further incensed by Palmer’s absenteeism—the dentist has yet to be charged for his involvement in the kill. “If you’re a local and you kill an animal without a license you get between two and five years in prison,” Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told The Telegraph.

Palmer’s fondness for big-game trophy hunting is well documented. The Telegraph published a number of photographs of the avid hunter alongside some of his more spectacular kills: a large African leopard, an elk, and a “world record” white rhinoceros.

The images are upsetting for obvious reasons: Many people don’t want to see these magnificent beasts as lifeless corpses, but rather thriving in their natural habitat. Though, Palmer’s passion is shared by an active minority of hunters that are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of shooting, killing, and posing with the so-called Big Five (the African elephant, the African leopard, the African lion, the white or black rhinoceros, and the Cape buffalo—considered the most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt on foot).

This (typically quite affluent) slice of the sportsman community argues that trophy hunting, and its hefty price tag, is what keeps Africa’s conservation projects afloat. The exorbitant fees exacted by a typical Big Five hunting trip can be reinvested in park infrastructure and breeding programs, which cultivate genetic diversity among animal populations and better measures for protecting them against poaching. Simultaneously, these fees ostensibly support jobs for members of local, impoverished communities (mainly in tracking and field-guide work).

The ecological benefits of trophy hunting are by and large exaggerated. Though many hunters claim to limit their pursuits to old, sick, and/or infertile specimens, the culture of trophy hunting renders the largest, most impressive animals desirable. In an op-ed for CNN, Jeffrey Flocken, North American regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, writes, “hunters are not like natural predators. They target the largest specimens; those with the biggest tusks, manes, antlers, or horns.”

This imperils one of the most basic mechanisms of healthy ecology: survival of the fittest. Eliminating the largest, and generally most virile members of a population produces a sort of reverse-Darwinism effect—“survival of the weakest.” Scientists have found that heavily sport-hunted populations of bighorn sheep, for example, now have smaller horns than those of 30 years ago (paywall). The elephants of today tend to have smaller tusks than those of the last century.

Furthermore, when the dominant male in a population is killed, it devastates the group social order. Young males will immediately begin fighting each other for dominance, resulting in a number of needless deaths, a subsequent dearth of breeding males, and a generational population decline. For lions, males jockeying for top-status will also try to kill cubs sired by competitors, though they have to go through mom first, inevitably bringing numbers of youngsters and breeding females into the eventual death toll.

“The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs,” Johnny Rodrigues, told The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

A population decline among apex predators (lions, leopards, etc.) results in a bloated population of prey species (antelope, zebras, wildebeest, etc.). In turn, this results in overgrazing, and a subsequent depletion of vegetation. Depleted vegetation then fires consequences back up the food chain—huge numbers of herbivores die of starvation, then the predators that feed on them (however many are left) starve and die off too. Trophy hunting has the potential to completely devastate an ecosystem.

Economically speaking, the benefits of trophy hunting are similarly exaggerated. A 2004 study (pdf) compiled by scientists at the Terrestrial Ecology Research Unit of the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa estimated that non-consumptive ecotourism (i.e., photo safaris, etc.) on private game reserves generated “more than 15 times the income of livestock or game rearing or overseas hunting.”

Likewise, compared with ecotourism, trophy hunting does not facilitate meaningful or substantial employment opportunities for abutting communities. “Photo safaris and other non-consumptive activities can be quite lucrative, but take a great deal of time and investment to set up,” wrote Michael De Alessi in a report (pdf) for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “Guests expect comfortable accommodations, quality meals and a range of activities. This in turn means a fair number of staff. Hunters, on the other hand, are often more happy with Spartan amenities, and one or two game scouts.”

A 2011 study (pdf) published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature states that in 11 sub-Saharan countries, 272 million acres (roughly 14.9% of the land) is open to trophy hunting. Though hunters abscond with thousands of trophies each year, they invest only an average of 44 cents per acre. In some countries, like Tanzania—home to some of the continent’s lushest game reserves—they invest as little as two cents per acre. “The average contribution of hunting to GDP is 0.06%. This means they are the least economically productive lands in the country,” researchers found. “Trophy hunting does therefore not represent economically valuable land use, especially in the context of the need to abate poverty and hunger.” These reserves are essentially blood-soaked playgrounds for the rich.

Let Cecil the lion’s needless death stand as yet another point against the fallacy of eco-friendly trophy hunting. Regardless of what proponents of the sport claim, the numbers don’t add up. Trophy hunting is damaging to the environment, and the so-called economic benefits aren’t nearly substantial enough to justify it—if you can put a price tag on biodiversity to begin with.