The iconic photograph of a Minesota dentist presiding over the corpse of a lion which he paid $55,000 to kill has stirred the media and the masses worldwide. We have heard about how barbaric trophy hunting is, about how wrong it is to kill such a magnificent creature, and about loss of habitat, over-hunting, and species extinction. If you’ve come across this – and it’s been hard to avoid it! – I’m sure you have been hit by strong emotions. You might have felt disgust, maybe even contempt, for the dentist; alternatively you may have felt sympathy about the impact the public outcry this has had on his family. Your heart might have broken at the death of the lion and the almost certain imminent death of his offspring. You may have felt horror at either the incident or the tone and strength of the coverage and the public response.
Once your initial emotional response has passed, though, I’d ask you to sit back and think about what changes you would like to see come of this, and from there let’s figure out a response that might help.
Let’s start by grounding ourselves in the story.
The killing of Cecil has hit the press worldwide. In addition to the online articles and those in the New York Times and elsewhere in the US, the incident has been covered in the United Kingdom by The Telegraph with, Cecil the lion’s killer revealed as American dentist, and the BBC with, Zimbabwe’s ‘iconic’ lion Cecil killed by hunter. It hit the major German paper, Das Bild, and France’s Le Monde.
Beyond the specific story of Cecil, though, the incident has brought new energy to the conversation about loss of habitat and species in this world. This has been a major concern for many years. There is much evidence of loss of habitat, not just through the expansion of the footprint of human life and (for example) cutting down rain forests, but also such secondary effects as vast quantities of human refuse and specifically plastic showing up in the oceans; changing pH levels which cause grave danger to coral reefs; and the impact of dams and estuary management on river system ecologies. I am reminded that “the science is settled” is not just a dangerous statement (for example the science of Newtonian mechanics was settled…until readings of Mercury’s orbit contradicted it and Einstein developed General Relativity), but is always inaccurate (science can, by its very nature, never be “finished”), but it does seem a pretty compelling story. A few examples are:
- The Scientific American blog post: African Lions Face Extinction by 2050, Could Gain Endangered Species Act Protection
- An article by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- Time Magazine’s, Scientists Warn ‘Sixth Extinction’ May Be Underway
So it’s pretty clear that something important is going on here, and I’d submit that the most meaningful responses to the killing of Cecil the lion should be considered and undertaken in this light.
…The Witch Hunt…
The knee-jerk reaction to unpleasant news is to find someone to blame and to punish them.
Following the press coverage, amidst calls for Justice for Cecil, a climate of blame and anger arose which led to fears for the safety of the dentist and his family – to the extent that police protection was provided. Demand rose for listing lions as a protected species (essentially imposing responsibility for protecting them on an unidentified and unfunded person or persons) and for the extradition of “the dentist”, which “The Beast” summarizes as follows:
“Zimbabwe officials are seeking the extradition of the U.S. dentist who illegally killed the country’s famed Cecil the Lion. Environmental Minister Oppah Muchinguri said Friday that the African nation’s prosecutor-general had started the process to request Walter Palmer’s extradition from the U.S. Palmer could face charges in Zimbabwe as the U.S. has an extradition agreement in place with country. The Minnesota resident contends he had relied on his local guides to make sure the hunt was legal, but regretted the killing. The White House said Thursday it would review a petition with 140,000 signatures calling for Palmer’s extradition for the killing.”
Those rationalizing this response have spoken of making an example and of the power of this kind of visibility to effect change. The history of this argument in the context of imprisoning Americans for murder and for drug offenses, or of the use of the death penalty, suggests that a minority will strongly believe and a minority strongly disbelieve, and neither group will be persuaded by the evidence of the other. And in any case the strength and emotion belies any suggestion of a rational approach. Rather it suggests a witch hunt.
A witch hunt is “a campaign directed against a person or group holding unorthodox or unpopular views.” I’d suggest that the death of Cecil has provided an opportunity for those who oppose hunting, or have “pro-environmental views” to come forward and believe that by protesting strongly and noisily – in some cases with apparent threats of violence – they can advance the cause of outlawing trophy hunting by American citizens, and adding to the list of endangered species. Above all, though, it is the response of a group of people who have seen something that appalls them and want to find a reason that they can eliminate. Such as focusing on the killer of Cecil being a serial animal killer.
…And The War.
Will punishing Cecil’s killer or adding the lion to the endangered species list make a difference?
Eliminating trophy hunting by American citizens and offering the lion legal protection may be laudable goals, but will they really make a difference? To begin to answer that question, let’s take a look at a contemporary (August 1) article, entitled, War Is Hell For These Wild Animals”. This is a simple and clear piece that points our attention to the plight of large mammals in a war zone. It begins in the South Sudan:
“The great icons of the wild—the elephants, the rhinos, the leopards and lions (so beloved of trophy hunting dentists and the heedless offspring of the outrageously rich) are gone or going fast. Conservationists say the “charismatic megafauna” are nearly wiped out here. No northern white rhino has been spotted in the region since 1981; only 2,500 elephant remain in all of South Sudan.
“Gazelle, giraffe and zebra are getting hammered,” says Dr. Paul Elkan, who’s at the plane’s controls. They’re being killed for food. “The bushmeat trade is fueling the civil war,” he says.
“As the war began to drag on, soldiers from both sides—the SPLA and the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO)—resorted to subsistence hunting. Bushmeat was sold in villages, with proceeds going to fund weapons purchases, and the troops’ snaring and shooting of animals evolved rapidly from a basic hunter-gatherer economy into a commercial enterprise. Gazelle, “the French fries of the plains” for traditional predators, once were plentiful. Today, the lion must compete with soldiers for gazelle.”
Having pointed out the effect of this particular war, the reporter goes on to look at the broader effect of African wars:
“…wildlife in parks in Angola and Mozambique were wiped out during civil wars during the 80s, when the South Sudanese fight for independence was under way conservationists didn’t hold out much hope its wildlife could survive. Pilots and aid workers returning from relief missions told grim stories that the wildlife was all but eliminated. But after the peace deal in 2005, when the WCS and the new government conducted the first aerial survey of the region in 25 years, astonishingly, they discovered vast migrating herds. The those began to be decimated.”
I can corroborate, from conversations with my guide and others during a visit last year to Botswana and Zimbabwe last year, that the large mammals of Zimbabwe have been hunted for food for years by people impoverished under the regime of Robert Mugabe.
The Real Problem is War and Poverty
The impact of war and poverty on Africa and African mammals is massive
In the last section of this article we looked at the impact of wars on mammals and mammal populations, but to complete the story, we need also to look at the impact of poverty. On a previous visit to Africa I talked to people associated with the park system of South Africa, and they helped me see the real magnitude of the problem.
- Large mammals have vast territories and roam vast distances, often 20+ miles a day. And many have even larger migration paths: with dramatic regional climate difference between dry and rainy seasons, migration is crucial to survival, since all animals have to follow the water, and the predators in particular must follow their prey.
- Africa is a continent with a tiny portion of its landmass set aside in national parks, which are not only not enough for the survival of the animals in anything like their natural condition, but have long borders that are not defensible against poachers;
- Protecting animals, whether at large or in the parks, requires significant resources which are not available;
- Local villager populations do not generally have an economic interest in sustaining the local wildlife and protecting the parks. Rather they stand to profit significantly by participating in poaching.
This last point about alignment of economic interests is incredibly important. Those running the parks have undertaken considerable effort to align the local population interests by including them in the economics of the park, for example by giving them jobs in the kitchen and waiting tables at lodges. But it is an uphill effort. African rural life is, for the most part, a hand-to-mouth, one-day-at-a-time existence. The economics are always hard to translate across socio-economic systems, but as a frame of reference, most families earn considerably less than $10 per day. The opportunity to make $1,000’s of dollars – several years of income and security – for a single day’s work must be tempting almost beyond measure!
What would YOU do if you were earning $3 per day, had no idea where the next day’s meal was coming from, and could earn five years income by killing one rhino…or in this case, one lion? There is enough evidence of how our neighbors and near neighbors would behave that cause us to question the initial, indignant response of, “I’d do the right thing, of course!” I don’t think we can ever know how we would react to a truly difficult moral question until we’re presented with it…and then, once we’ve made a decision, of course we rationalize it.
Not only is the incentive enormous, but the opportunity is considerable: the animals can be found in and around the many small parks which, for practical purposes, are almost unprotected. And the weapons of death are readily available – and becoming more so! For example, the modern trophy poacher with access to the chemicals of the mining industry can put cyanide in watering holes. Animals come to the watering holes at night, so the wise poacher does his rounds at dawn, quickly removing trophies – elephant tusks, rhino horns – before the over-stretched and poorly armed officials ever know.
The Good News is You CAN Make a Difference
The current furor will run its course: the lion may or may not end up on the endangered species list, and the dentist and his African guides will likely receive some form of official punishment. But while these responses may have value, so long as a climate of poverty and warfare continues, the problems faced by large African mammals will continue largely unchecked. To address the problems that the death to which of Cecil points, I think we need to be aiming at dealing with the problems that lead to poverty and war. The good news is that I see things that can be done in this regard:
- Poverty can be reduced and incentives for independence increased by microloans. This is made incredibly easy by Kiva, where you can support farming and business loans of a few hundred dollars in $25 increments. Imagine the effect of $100 in outstanding loans from every person in America. More from those who could afford it! And supporting Kiva will surely lead to the growth of other similar systems.
- Education makes a huge difference. I have recently encountered several individuals who have, of their own initiative, started ongoing projects which fund schools in Africa at a classroom cost of just a handful of thousand dollars. And I sit on the advisory board of The Atlantic Institute which is part of a movement that has built over 2,000 schools worldwide, many of them in impoverished nations such as Somalia and Azerbaijan. I also recently spent time with a dear friend who is involved, through the firm of which he is an officer, in building schools in rural China. It is easy to find a way to get involved in advancing education – and many employers support their employees doing just this.
- One of my favorite solutions, though, is simply engaging in dialog. Many object to this as a course of action, arguing that it is not doing anything. I differ, and my experience suggests otherwise. I have found that only by listening can we really understand what is happening, and what solutions might work. And most of the time I find that those closer to the problems than I am know exactly what needs to be done, and they know what support and help they need. Often this support is simply to be left alone. It’s like that really good boss you remember, whose most important role was to give you the space to do your work by protecting you from the questioning and directing eyes and ears of his or her bosses.