Cecil the Lion: Wildlife conservation requires a debate

The killing  of Cecil the Lion is making a waves in international media. In general, what do you think about this case? Is it surprising that it made so many people angry and would say it could contribute to efforts to preserve the wildlife? Read few comments.

Bernhard Gißibl, Wiss. Mitarbeiter, Abteilung für Universalgeschichte, Leibniz-Institute of European History

Of course I am following these discussions and I am astonished at the enormous shockwaves the hunt has caused throughout (social) media on the internet as well as among conservationist and animal welfare organizations. In Germany, the leading tabloid BILD is at the forefront of the moral campaign against the hunter, having exposed the full name and further personal details of the hunter already yesterday. Needless to say how questionable this exposure of the individual is, inviting, as it does, not only personal accusations and offenses that are liable to legal prosecution, but actually threat’s to the hunter’s life and fantasies of torturing the hunter the way he allegedly tortured Cecil the lion.

These mechanisms of online pillorying of individuals and their moral demolition are, however, nothing new and one could illustrate them also by causes from other issue areas. But you asked if I am surprised that so many people are angry about this and if this case may further the cause of wildlife preservation.

As to the first question: I am astonished, but no, I am not surprised. In Germany, there has been a similar case last year when a high-ranking official of an environmental ministry in one of the German states went big game hunting in Botswana and was careless enough that some of his pictures were leaked to the press. There was a similar outrage in German media at the time, thriving upon the alleged scandal that a person whose job was to preserve the environment engaged in the killing of animals worthy of conservation in his pastime.

While the way in which disapproval is framed and uttered by some is very questionable indeed, the case illustrates how unacceptable hunting has become as a pastime of elites and an expression of masculinity, especially in Western Europe. Starting in the 1960s, it has vanished from public visibility and disappeared into the seclusive realms of hunting magazines and related online fora. Wildlife tourism and, above all, wildlife documentaries on TV in particular have created such an extreme virtual intimacy of Northern audiences with Africa’s wildlife that charismatic species like lions and elephants have become utterly cosmopolitanized and the object of caring concern in these societies. While such a broad social constituency for conservation is a very welcome development, this long-distance stewardship is not without its problems, especially when those who have to interact with large wildlife in their everyday lives take decisions that are not in accordance with the outside values Northern societies project upon these animals.

Therefore, the answer to your second question is less straightforward. Of course, the current campaign against the hunter brings the issue of African wildlife conservation to the fore. Celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and many others publicly pledge to conservation and against hunting, and the case may well result in an increase of donations for animal welfare and conservation organizations, at least as long as the issue is in the media spotlight.

While the death of Cecil, therefore, might help conservation in the short run, I don’t think that a tweet by Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most sustainable way to help wildlife conservation further. I regret that the apparent moral unambiguousness of the case once more prevents a sober and not emotionalized debate about African wildlife conservation and the plurality of ways it can and needs to be achieved. The fact that it was a lion celebrity called Cecil (whom I am sure the majority of people has never heard of until his death), that Cecil seems to have been lured out of the safety of the National Park and that he was left for hours to suffer, means that it is hard to stand up and call for a disinterested debate about what role hunting could and should play in the whole complex of African wildlife conservation.

This individual hunt has been undertaken in such a cruel and  – in the value system of hunting – such an “unsporting” way that it should cause outrage first and foremost also among hunters themselves. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the excesses of Western hunters early in the 20th century, when hunting lions by blinding them in the spotlight of cars or by attaching a bait to the back of a car was a common pastime, practiced e.g. on the Athi Plains in southern Kenya before the First World War, or in the Serengeti in the 1920s. Such excesses and the moral outrage they provoke obscure the fact that from the colonial invention of wildlife conservation in Africa in the late nineteenth century, sustainable hunting and the revenue garnered from the sale of hunting licences has contributed considerably to conservation efforts. One does neither be a hunter nor harbor any sympathies for hunting to acknowledge that under certain circumstances, hunting and the sacrificing of an individual can contribute to the overall conservation of the species. Since more than three decades, trophy hunting – often euphemistically circumscribed as “recreational” or even “sustainable” hunting – has made a remarkable return into conservation schemes of many African countries. In areas unsuitable for the establishment of large protected areas and in buffer zones around many national parks, trophy hunting has been introduced as part of community-based (or neoliberal market-oriented) wildlife conservation schemes. Hunting has become a form of pro-poor-development, often with the sanction and support of the huge conservation organizations like the WWF or the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Germany.

Of course, much of this has been rhetoric and in many schemes, it is utterly questionable how much of the revenue has really reached communities. But trophy hunting has undeniably become an important tool in wildlife conservation again and it is established and accepted practice in many states across Southern Africa. However, this development has happened beyond the radar of the interested public in the Northern Hemisphere, who largely believe that a hands-off approach to Africa’s charismatic wildlife is enough to guarantee their survival. This is in itself a blinkered and clichéd perception as if all Africa functioned as a national park. Therefore, wildlife conservation required a differentiated and differentiating debate, without moral damnation and beyond the marketing of involved NGOs who tailor conservation to the sentiments of their Northern constituencies. Unfortunately, the emotionally charged atmosphere after the death of Cecil does not seem to allow for that debate.

Stuart Pimm, Professor of Conservation Ecology, Duke University

Issues with hunting wildlife are very complicated and those in Africa especially so.

There are those who think all hunting is unethical. There are those who think sustained hunting can do a lot of good. There isn’t much dialogue between them.

Two adjacent countries illustrate the problems. Kenya bans all hunting. Tanzania devotes far more of its land to hunting concessions than it does to protected areas — despite the fact it has such famous national parks as the Serengeti.

Roughly, Kenya feels that what it gains from tourism is its best use of land. Tanzania has vast areas of very poor quality land for which hunting may be the best use. Hunters argue that without the money they bring in, these areas would likely be converted to other uses and all wildlife — including those species that are hunted — would suffer.

All this supposes that hunting is done in a sustainable way. That’s a challenge for poor countries with limited resources — Zimbabwe is an example — and especially when individual hunts may bring in very large sums of money to those involved. Countries that allow hunting generally restrict the hunting to concessions and impose rules and regulations. Clearly, some hunting guides cheat.

I’ve seen plenty of examples of dead goats or donkeys, strung up on trees, just outside national parks. This allows hunting guides to take their clients to a place where it’s easy to find a lion or leopard reaching up to grab the meat and then shoot it at close range. A sitting duck as we say. It’s certainly not the image of a hunter pursuing his prey across the wilds of Africa.

Now, I’m sure many hunters are appalled by this kind of activity. Just as they are likely appalled by taking animals that should not be hunted because of their age or sex. The reality, however, is that many animals are killed that should not be. Too many are killed, too. Certainly, luring animals outside of protected areas in this way means that the protected areas do not protect.

This becomes a particular problem for lions that are a threatened species. Their numbers are declining rapidly.


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