On Cecil the Lion, Conservation, and Big Game in Africa

This is not Cecil, just another beautiful male lion at a game reserve in South Africa
This is not Cecil, just another beautiful male lion at Schotia game reserve in South Africa

As a life long animal lover, conservation biology student, and veterinary student, the recent news of Cecil the Lion’s death in Zimbabwe made me angry. I fully support hunting for food and for some population control measures, but never truly understood why big game hunters feel the need to kill just for trophies.

Whether I understand it or not, trophy hunters exist and the practice can certainly help conservation efforts (see here). When a trophy hunter purchases a permit to kill an African animal, a portion of that money can be put back into conservation programs within the country or go towards supporting the local community. This certainly does not represent a victory for the individual animal, but may contribute to overall conservation efforts for a species in the country.

So what is different about Cecil the Lion and the man who killed him, Walter Palmer? First, Cecil was part of an Oxford University GPS tracking study. He was one of several lions outfitted with a GPS collar and tracked over several years. Scientists were able to track his movements within Zimbabwe and the information provided by the collar allowed the researchers to determine the status of the lion population and the threats it faces in the country. Second, Palmer and his guides lured Cecil out of a national park (where it is illegal to hunt) into an area where he could be killed legally. Cecil was known to local guides as a relatively “friendly” lion; perhaps this is why Palmer’s guides knew they could lure him away with food. Finally, Palmer shot Cecil using a bow and arrow, but Cecil did not die immediately. Palmer and his guides tracked the lion for 40 hours, then shot him with a gun to finally kill him. As a veterinary student, this is the hardest piece of information to swallow. A skilled hunter should be able to kill an animal immediately (or quickly) with minimal pain and suffering, that is the humane thing to do. There is no doubt Cecil experienced some degree of suffering in those 40 hours. I have been unable to find information regarding the ultimate destination of the money Palmer paid for his hunting permit, but given the state of government corruption in many African nations (especially Zimbabwe), I would not be surprised if none of the money went to conservation but all into the pockets of government officials.

The poaching crisis in Africa has escalated so quickly in recent years, we may soon see the extinction of many big game species; most notably rhino, but elephants and lions are also at risk. An estimated 1,215 rhino were poached in South Africa in 2014, and nearly 700 have been poached already this year. Central Africa has lost 64% of its elephants in the last ten years. Though some in South Africa say there are too many elephants (I’ve heard it first hand from some guides) and they are destroying the plant life in parks, Kruger National Park recently lost its first elephant to poaching in over 10 years. Lion populations have also declined nearly 90% in the last 75 years (not to mention declining numbers of other big cats such as cheetah, leopard, and tigers). These animals are poached namely to supply the demand for “alternative” medicine products in Asia. Rhino horn (made of keratin, just like your hair and fingernails) and lion bones are believed to have medicinal properties (not proven) and elephant ivory is taken to make ornate carvings, perhaps seen as a status symbol. There is no question that if serious action is not taken against poachers and those who buy these products, poaching will continue until there aren’t any big game animals left, not even for the trophy hunters.

White Rhinos at Schotia Game Reserve. These two were poached but fortunately survived having their horns cut off.
White Rhinos at Schotia Game Reserve: These two were poached but fortunately survived having their horns cut off.

A final thought on Cecil, Palmer, and the internet backlash surrounding the whole situation. Many are calling for violence against Palmer and his family. This accomplishes nothing. Palmer’s dental practice has been affected and he and his family have received death threats. Animal rights activists are notorious for promoting violence against those who harm wildlife, yet this does nothing for the overall welfare of these animals. It paints Palmer as a victim to those who agree with him, and he may even receive support to recover from the backlash. Instead of calling for Palmer’s head on a stake, those concerned about the state of big game can channel that energy into publicizing the state of the poaching crisis in Africa. They can donate money to any of the many wonderful organizations working to advance big game conservation all over the continent and participate in non-violent activities with big game, such as safari trips, to stimulate local economies. I’ll end this post with a list of organizations that need support. Please consider donating, every dollar counts.

Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit

National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative

The Silent Heroes Foundation

World Lion Day’s List of Organizations to Support

Our Horn is Not Medicine

Rhinos Without Borders

Amboseli Trust for Elephants

Save the Rhino International

Wildlife Conservation Society

AfriCat Foundation

This is just a small selection of organizations. There are so many out there so get informed and lend your support!

Edit: I failed to mention another important aspect of this situation and that is the Zimbabwean perspective. I tend to focus on animals (that’s why I’m working to be a vet) and neglect to consider the people involved. Please read this excellent perspective of the situation from a local who had actually never heard of Cecil.

Female Elephant at Schotia Game Reserve
Female Elephant at Schotia Game Reserve, South Africa
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5 thoughts on “On Cecil the Lion, Conservation, and Big Game in Africa

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful, reasonable and proactive response to this event. I hope this media frenzy doesn’t amount to just this weeks hot topic, but instead leads to postive change and support for the large animals we are all responsible for.

  2. Great post, thank you. It is great to see that people outside of Africa can see the situation as it really is. I live in South Africa and we can see first hand what poaching does. Thank you for sharing the facts and the truth – it is way overdue.

    • Thank you Natasha! I’ve been living in SA for the past 2 months and I come to visit nearly every summer so I’m constantly trying to educate family and friends back home. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

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