Not long ago over 200,000 of these magnificent creatures roamed the African savannas. Now there are less than 30,000 lions left living in the wild.
While the internet descended on Walter J. Palmer over the trophy killing of Cecil the Lion this week, the truth is the problem runs much deeper than one Minnesota dentist needing to prove his manhood. There are numerous contributing factors to the decline of lion populations, including trophy hunting, poaching, encroachment on habitats, the socioeconomic conditions of the local people, and geopolitics.
Given the emerging details of Cecil’s death, one can’t feel too bad over Mr Palmer’s current predicament.
Cecil was a ‘celebrity’ at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park due to his relaxed interactions with human visitors. He was also one of the lions fitted with a GPS collar as part of an Oxford University research into lions in the wild, led by Dr. Andrew J. Loveridge of the Department of Zoology.
It was reported that Cecil was illegally baited out the protected National Park by an animal carcass dragged behind a car and shot by Mr Palmer with a crossbow. The injured and suffering Cecil was then allegedly tracked for 40 hours with the help of guides, before he was killed with a rifle. Cruel, gruesome and utterly inhumane …
Mr Palmer, who reportedly paid $50,000 for the hunt, insists that, as far as he knew, everything was legal about the hunt. Of course that still begs the question what compels an otherwise well-educated and presumably intelligent adult to kill such a magnificent creature in the year 2015, merely for the thrill of it?!
It is also troubling that in 2008 Mr Palmer pleaded guilty to poaching a black bear in Wisconsin two years earlier. In that case the bear, which was killed 40 miles outside a legal hunting area, was subsequently transported by him and others to a registration station inside the legal zone. Palmer was sentenced to one year of probation and fined nearly $3,000 according to the Star Tribune.
An estimated 600 lions are killed annually by paying trophy hunters according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. About 60% of the hunters are Americans. And it’s all perfectly legal. And never underestimate the power of poverty, corruption and cashed up Western tourists coming together.
The trophy hunting industry is estimated to contribute over $200m a year to African governments. In theory, the money is intended to finance conservation efforts, the maintenance of the various national parks and help local communities, although many questions whether those goals are achieved.
There are no easy solutions to the problem but if we are serious about protecting the remaining biodiversity of Africa, a good start would be to end, or at least suspend, trophy hunting in places where it is abused. We must also put in place much stronger general protections for the unique wildlife of Africa, including combating poaching generally.
As the world raged over Cecil, on Monday night African poachers killed five elephants in Tsavo West National Park in Kenya. The dead animals, an adult female and her four offspring, were discovered by rangers the next morning, with their tusks hacked off.
If we are to accept trophy hunting as a necessary evil to finance preservation and local communities, we need to explore options to ensure such hunts fully comply with the rules. For example, Western countries routinely legislate in respect of their citizens’ conduct overseas, ranging from using commercial surrogacy to getting involved in foreign conflicts.
Why not put in place serious criminal and financial penalties for those Western hunters who engage in poaching, or other questionable hunting activities, around the world so they can be prosecuted at home? And where such laws already exist they may need to be strengthened and their enforcement stepped up.
For example, Mr Palmer’s actions arguably violated the US Lacey Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 3371-3378), a conservation law designed to shield animals from harm and tied to a United Nations treaty for the protection of animals governing the actions of Americans who violate the laws of foreign countries.
Such changes to the law would still facilitate legally compliant hunting, and the flow of funds for conservation and to local communities. However, monitoring the flow of such funds should also be stepped up to combat corruption, and to make sure the funds flow to their intended destination.
Given the corruption and poverty in many of the affected African nations these are difficult propositions, but unless tangible action is taken soon, chances are we will witness the last lion, and the last of who knows how many other species of the African savanna and around the world, die in our lifetime.
If you can live with that legacy, please feel free to move on …
Monty Python’s take on hunting