The debate over Cecil the lion should be about conservation, not hunting

There are a number of potentially valuable lessons to be learned from Cecil the lion’s death. From

Much of the attention generated by the demise of Cecil the lion appears related to the fact that he was a member of a charismatic species, that his species is threatened and the nature of his death. But now that Cecil, a resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, is gone how do we ensure that such events are not repeated? It is not as simple as banning hunting.

Trophy hunting, or the selective removal of animals from a population based on a desirable trait, is a deeply polarising issue. Ethical standpoints against the deliberate killing of animals for sport are what drive the public response that we now see.

Biologists have concerns about undesirable evolutionary outcomes that may arise from the killing of “prime” individual animals. These animals are typically males that exhibit a desirable trait, like a large mane. Conservationists, have concerns that hunting may cause inbreeding, or drive rare species’ populations in isolated protected areas to the brink of extinction.

Hunting brings in money

Despite the controversy, trophy hunting remains a legally sanctioned activity in most African countries. That is because hunting generates income. Sportsmen and women visiting Africa contribute as much as USD 201 million a year directly through hunting. This is excluding economic multipliers. And safari operators are custodians of at least 1.4 million km2 of land in sub-Saharan Africa, exceeding the area encompassed by national parks in those countries where hunting is permitted by over 20%.

Conservationists recognise that trophy hunting contributes to the protection of land, where ecotourism may be unviable. Bans on trophy hunting in Kenya (1977 onward), Tanzania (1973-78) and Zambia (2000-03) have been associated with an accelerated loss of wildlife, not the other way around.

The halving of Africa’s lion population over the past 20 years is not the result of trophy hunting. African lions have declined through the classic drivers of extinction, namely habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and disease.

What’s different about Cecil

Cecil was no ordinary lion. Reportedly aged 13 years old, he was well past the normal breeding age for males of his species, what we term senescent. Male lions only gain opportunities to mate after taking over pride ownership after at least five years of age. They may hold tenure for between two and four years before being displaced by younger males. Cecil should thus have completed the genetic contribution that he could be expected to make before he was shot, and could not have been expected to live much past 15 years.

Why then had Cecil remained a breeding pride male for so long? One reason may be that the younger males that would have contested pride ownership, had been removed by hunters operating in lands neighbouring the Hwange National Park. Indeed, the Oxford University researchers who had been following Cecil’s life performance reported that 72% of the males they collared within the national park had been killed by trophy hunters, and 30% of those males shot were under four years old.

In this way, hunting taking place legitimately on land outside the formally protected area is prejudicing not only scientific research, but also the role of a flagship national park in protecting viable populations of large carnivores.

How should this conflict be resolved?

If the professional hunter and his client broke the law, then let the Zimbabwean legal system take care of that. More generally, how do conservationists trade off the money generated by trophy hunters against the huge costs of maintaining protected areas? What restrictions should be placed on where hunting takes place so that opportunities to draw candidates for hunting out of protected areas using baits placed outside their borders are prevented?

The traditional boundaries drawn on maps from parks and zones where these animals are need to be re-assessed. They need softening and buffer regions where hunting is not allowed. Alternatively, areas effectively protected within the park should have non-poaching activities that people can enjoy. Perhaps the activities in the buffer zone could be foot safaris, providing the excitement of encounters with wild animals without the destructive outcome associated with hunting.

The worldwide emotional response to the killing of this eminent animal could potentially lead to more effective reconciliation between the legitimate contributions that hunting can make to conservation, and the efforts to set aside sufficient land in protected areas to ensure the long-term persistence of the species these areas are supposed to protect.

Whatever the outcome following the death of Cecil, an emotive, uncompromising standpoint around the ethics of trophy hunting alone will not assist the conservation effort in Africa. In fact, it may well have the unintended consequence of undermining it.