one green planet
one green planet

As humans, we identify with stories. Fact or fiction, the stories we share are best told from one perspective at a time: an individual narrative is far more compelling than an overview. The wreckage of a war we’ve read has killed a certain number of people, for instance, may become real to us only when we see the weeping face of a child who has lost a father to that war. When Aylan Kurdi’s tiny body was found washed up on the Turkish shore, the plight of the Syrian refugees snapped into focus for many of us, a plight that before seeing the widely shared image of the drowned toddler had been merely vague political rumbling. The ugliness of trophy hunting on Africa was defined for people across oceans when one lion’s famous death was narrated by the media. But it is when an individual is mourned so specifically that the problems which created the tragedy aren’t given due exploration, that the individual has died in vain.

This may be the case with Cecil the lion.


One a Murder, Many a Statistic

Zimbabwe’s Cecil has not been the only infamous animal murder of late – Satao, the beloved elephant of Kenya; the Goodleigh Giant, a stag poached in England – but for every Cecil-type there are tens of thousands of unnamed animals whose deaths go unnoticed by the media. And it is when these numbers climb that a devastation beyond the individual occurs: some of these species’ populations don’t have far to drop before extinction. In South Africa, one rhino is killed for its horn (falsely believed to be useful in traditional Chinese medicine) every eight hours, a rate that has contributed to rhinos’ categorization as Critically Endangered, and most big game hunted on Africa are on similar paths.

The American who killed Cecil returned to Minnesota to find a practical monument to the dead lion (and a proverbial effigy to himself) erected at the doors of his dental practice. Unfortunately, one arrogant and arguably violent man is not the kingpin in a worldwide poaching problem, a problem that in particular is affecting Cecil’s home continent.

Legal Trophy Hunting or Poaching?

Illegal poaching, while reviled, is on the rise, but legal trophy hunting is on the rise too, twice more reported in 2008 than 1999. Americans again carry much of the blame: over half of the lions killed for “sport” in Africa are shipped to the United States to become “trophies.” Hunting groups, such as Safari International (who declared Cecil’s death a triumph before retracting the dentist’s license after public outcry) claim that legal trophy hunting brings billions of dollars to Africa each year and actually aids conservation by limiting illegal poaching.

In 2010, a major trophy hunting operation in South Africa was implicated for rhino poaching and the smuggling of horns, and more are suspected of aiding – knowingly or not – the illegal selling of animal body parts in Asia. The black rhino population is very nearly extinct; there are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas on the entire continent of Africa; well over 100,000 elephants were killed in Africa since 2011; and as to Cecil’s brethren, their numbers and their land are dwindling daily… Whatever “conservation” effort trophy hunters think they’re contributing to, it’s not working. Poaching has not been curtailed, but bolstered: rhino poaching, in fact, is at all an-time high.

Trophy Hunting, Poaching, and People

Animal welfare and conservation groups say the hunters’ argument that trophy hunting helps conservation efforts and struggling communities is a paltry one. Trophy hunting does not provide consistent financial support: The International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation themselves even report that only three percent of the revenue from trophy hunts ever make it into the local communities. And it does not provide sustainable conservation: making trophy hunting legal does not dissuade illegal hunting, as we see from cases of black market traders posing as legal hunters to import body parts into Asia. Lion populations, in particular, have been decimated in the past two decades, and are likely to fall to half the current size in the next two decades: trophy hunting clearly hasn’t helped the other “Cecils” yet.

The people living in poach-for-profit areas are impoverished. The lack of resources available to them may make poaching seem a solution, if not a desperate one, but it actually creates long-term detriment to these communities. The people working for poachers do so at their own risk, facing serious prison time and punishment if caught, and without regulations that would affect prices and treatment of employees. Even those hunting legally can be easily led astray, like the Zimbabweans who assisted in Cecil’s death, which had originally been proposed as a “legal” hunt. As much as The Safari Club would like us to believe they are conservationists at heart, with the best interest of these communities in mind, the thousands of animals they kill and ship to the U.S. each year might, if they could, argue differently, and the affected communities, one would hope, would be thriving.

Murder or Statistic?

The attention granted to Cecil brought to light the suffering a hunted animal can endure before their death: Cecil was on the run, wounded, for 40 hours before the cowardly dentist inflicted the final blow of his rifle. But let us not forget the other individuals who have and will share Cecil’s fate – the rhinos whose faces are hacked off for their horns; the infant gorillas stolen from their parents to be sold; and the other Cecils, those unnamed lions falling prey to both legal and illegal murder – so that instead of a daunting statistic, they are lives who are worth working to save.

Lead image source: Michael Day/Flickr