CECIL THE LION, R.I.P.—Cruelty for Fun and Profit
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Animal lovers and environmentalists around the globe were outraged in July, 2015, by news reports of the killing of Cecil the lion, a beloved big cat who was allegedly lured from the safety of his home in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe by Dr. Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist, who had shelled out $50,000 to guides in an effort to fulfill his dream of killing a lion with a bow and arrow. Any legitimate hunter hopes for a clean kill, cringes at the thought of his prey being wounded and suffering, considerations that failed to trouble the conscience of Dr. Palmer.
According to Oxford researcher Dr. Andrew Loveridge, who had studied the radio-collared lion for eight years, Cecil suffered in agony, struggling for breath, for ten to twelve hours before being tracked down and killed with a second arrow, after which he was skinned and beheaded by Dr. Palmer and his crew.
Dr. Palmer had skirted the edge of the law before. A few years earlier, in Wisconsin, he had killed a large black bear forty miles from his permitted hunting area and was fined $3000 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During his interrogation, Palmer committed a felony by lying to federal officials and attempted to shift blame for his offense to his guides.
The ordeal of Cecil stimulated international outrage and a groundswell of condemnation for Dr. Palmer and all trophy hunters. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called for Dr. Palmer to be extradited, prosecuted and hanged. Others, equally outraged, suggested less Draconian penalties.
Dr. Loveridge, angered and saddened by the obscene fate of Cecil, decided to explore the entire issue of trophy hunting, particularly with regard to Africa’s lions. The results of his research are available in his new book Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil and the Future of Africa’s Iconic Cats.
As early as 2005, seeking support for his lion conservation efforts, Loveridge had traveled to Reno, Nevada to attend the annual meeting of Safari Club International, a 50,000 member hunting club that promotes itself as a wildlife conservation organization. He had hoped to garner support for his lion research, but he met with disappointment, discovering to his dismay that trophy hunting is an industry, fueled by big money and big egos. The conference was an opportunity for those selling firearms and hunting safaris to hawk their wares. Those present sought only to sate their blood lust, inflate their egos, and profit from the suffering and death of defenseless creatures. Their concern was that Loveridge’s research might reveal their true motives and limit the number of lions they could kill. Trophy hunting is big business. To paraphrase the character Deep Throat in All the President’s Men, “It’s all about the money. Follow the money.”
As cruel and unnecessary as trophy hunting is, it is not a major cause of many species of African wildlife now facing extinction. As with most cases of threatened or extinct wildlife, habitat loss due to increased cultivation of formerly natural areas, spurred by unrestricted human population growth, is the culprit. Currently, an area of sub-Saharan Africa twice the size of Texas is reserved and regulated for trophy hunting.
Without such protections, more of that vast area might be converted to agriculture, leading to even more habitat loss and a greater death toll among lions, elephants, rhinos and other threatened species.
Hunters continue to argue that revenues derived from their activities support conservation and provide much needed relief to impoverished African farmers and villagers. In reality, however, revenues from hunting only pay a tiny amount of the costs of conservation, and very little ever filters down to local native populations.
Unprotected cattle, goats and donkeys, serve as easy prey for lions, especially younger, inexperienced ones. Small subsistence farmers can be easily devastated by the loss of a cow or the family’s donkey, their only beast of burden. With no other means of survival other than what they can eke from the soil, farmers and villagers insist upon predator control.
While in survey after survey, African people have affirmed that lions have a right to exist, a wealthy foreigner who pays an obscene amount to kill a lion or an elephant may be perceived as a benefactor, ridding farmers of an expensive pest, much as rural Midwesterners might happily end the career of the fox who raids henhouses or the woodchuck who devours garden crops.
One way to limit the appeal of trophy hunting would be to ban the importation of big game trophies into the United States. To the pleasant surprise of many, President Donald Trump, one of whose sons is a trophy hunter, reversed his own Interior Department’s decision to again permit big game trophies to enter the US, stating, “I would be hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal.”
And yet, Mr. Trump sends mixed messages on the subject. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the President’s Wildlife Conservation Council is weighted with members who are sympathetic to trophy hunters, including the National Rifle Association’s director of hunting policy, the vice president of the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation that lobbies for hunters, a firearms industry executive, a veterinarian with ties to international animal trade, and a reality TV hunting guide. To date, no one on the council possesses any expertise in wildlife conservation.
Lions die horrendous, agonizing deaths from wire snares set by poachers. Others suffer grim fates in the jaws of “gin” traps, made from automobile springs and buried around a lion’s kill site. Some animals have been known to lose a foot in a gin trap, requiring euthanization. A lion caught in a snare will struggle to free himself, causing the wire to dig ever deeper into his flesh, causing great pain and eventual slow death. As is the case with other species targeted by poachers, lion products generally find their way into Chinese and Vietnamese markets to provide imaginary cures for a host of ailments.
There is no realistic way to prevent lions from straying outside the invisible boundaries of preserves like Hwange National Park and other wildlife areas. Even more frustrating, there is no way at the present to prevent poachers and trophy hunters from planting carcasses to lure them into unprotected areas, as Dr. Palmer did in the case of Cecil. Fencing off such areas would be prohibitively expensive for cash strapped African economies, and local peoples have a history of stealing wire from fences to make even more snares with which to snag wildlife, including lions.
As human populations continue to grow and agricultural land is expanded, conflicts between humans and apex predators like lions will increase. The solution to disappearing wildlife and vanishing biodiversity would seem to be expanded preserves. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, in his 2016 publication Half Earth, urges that one half the land area of earth be set aside as human free in order to preserve biodiversity.
At the same time, however, much greater enforcement of boundaries than is currently the case would be necessary. Perhaps the governments of Botswana, Zimbabwe and other nations where wildlife is threatened could recruit and train law enforcement and protection details similar to South Africa’s Black Mambas, a largely female force that protects endangered rhinos and other species from poachers. Kenya has recruited Masai warriors, the Ndebele, and equipped them with mountain bikes, GPS units and plastic trumpets called vuvuzelas, to drive lions and other predators away from livestock. In Kenya the number of livestock losses to lions has been reduced by 50%.
However, the greater ethical question remains. What deficiency of mind, body or spirit causes an individual to find gratification in such sadistic activities as those of Dr. Palmer, to turn a magnificent animal like Cecil into a skinned, beheaded shell, an inert and ghoulish trophy to decorate, or defile, the office or man-cave of an egocentric brute. I once visited the home of a person who had killed a large black bear. The remains had been stuffed and mounted in his recreation room. I gazed sadly into the bear’s lifeless glass eyes and saw only the empty facsimile of the amiable, pulchritudinous creature who had once lived behind them.
All animals, other than man, kill their prey out of necessity. Even among humans, poor farmers and herdsmen, living barely subsistence lives, often kill in order to save their crops or livestock, an everyday reality that those of us living out our lives safely tucked away inside protected urban civilizations, often do not understand.
Only some men with withered souls take pleasure in dealing out pain, destruction and death in order to reassure weak and insecure egos. What else could motivate a person to kill an animal whose remains will not be eaten or worn, who poses no threat. Be that as it may, the ugly practice continues. Two years after the slaughter of Cecil, an anonymous trophy hunter also killed his son Xanda.
An item in yesterday’s news affirms that men have no monopoly on such misbehavior. Ms. Tess Thompson Talley published a photo of herself with the corpse of a rare black giraffe she had just killed. Ms. Talley was quoted as saying, “Prayers for my once in a lifetime dream hunt came true.”
The Africa Digest responded, “White American savage who is part Neanderthal comes to Africa and shoots down a very rare black giraffe courtesy of South African Stupidity.”
While the Digest’s anger is justified, their response does a disservice to Neanderthals, relatively peaceful creatures who hunted in order to supply food and clothing, not to inflate an inner vacuum. As for the God that Ms. Talley attempts to identify with her misbehavior, attributing evil to the Holy Spirit may constitute blasphemy, an offense for which there is no forgiveness.