The Aftermath Of The Notorious Zimbabwean Lion Hunt
September 2015, Volume 13-4

Journalists from around the globe qualified in environmental matters or not, with or without sound knowledge on wildlife conservation, felt the necessity to chip in with an opinion or an opinionated story on the most notorious lion hunt ever. And so did millions of people on social media, most with scant or no background information on the realities of African wildlife conservation and the daily life of rural people living close to wildlife in Africa.

The story of a lion from Hwange National Park, which was called Cecil by some, galvanized self-proclaimed experts to condemn hunting as cruel and anachronistic.

A few weeks into the furor about this particular lion more reasonable voices surfaced; people with knowledge on African wildlife conservation put forward rational arguments and questioned the knee-jerk reactions and vitriolic comments.

Africans seemed to be quite surprised about the uproar. Zimbabwean citizen Goodwell Nzou wondered in an opinion piece in The New York Times of 5th AugustCecil who? When I turned on the news and discovered that the messages were about a lion killed by an American dentist, the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.”

Why is it, that despite of the millions of visitors to national parks, the protected areas are usually running at a loss and have to be subsidized by the taxpayer? And why is it that many remote hunting concessions have well-functioning anti-poaching and community conservation programs in place? Why are places, less scenic and attractive than those of the up-market game lodges in national parks, still harboring wildlife and have not been converted to agricultural land or livestock grazing grounds? Could it be that hunting, albeit removing a few individuals from locally thriving wildlife populations, provides more attractive returns for the landowners?

Dr. Rosie Cooney answered these questions with an abundant YES. “There is clear and demonstrable evidence that vast areas of private/communally owned land in southern Africa have been restored to wildlife, driven by the income earned from wildlife-based land uses”, Dr. Cooney said, and “on most of that land, tourism is not viable and the biggest earner is hunting.

Dr. Paul Tudor Jones II stated that “hunting generates a significant amount of revenue” and he challenged “those who are bitterly opposed to all forms of hunting, to hark back to E.O. Wilson’s line about a greater independence of thought”. Dr. Jones added “Photographic tourism is great in places where large animals roam and the scenery is spellbinding, but that’s not always the case in Africa”. In places where landscape and wildlife are mundane, trophy hunting is the better land-use option.”

Theodore Roosevelt IV wrote in an article of The Washington Times “For my urban friends in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, trophy hunting is inconceivable and signing petitions to ban it seems like the very least they can do. It is the very least, and the very worst”.

And I am quoting in this context Nzou again: “For Zimbabweans, wild animals have near-mystical significance. We belong to clans, and each clan claims an animal totem as its mythological ancestor. Mine is ‘Nzou’, elephant, and by tradition, I can’t eat elephant meat; it would be akin to eating a relative’s flesh. But our respect for these animals has never kept us from hunting them or allowing them to be hunted.”

Human hunters were probably the first to express this deeply rooted empathy and respect for the animals they hunted. Hunting constitutes arguably the oldest human activity and influenced human development, culture, religion and social interactions from the beginnings of human history. The ancient human hunters’ relationship with animals made them create amazingly beautiful paintings and rock carvings of hunting scenes; they also conserved parts like antlers, tusks and horns of the hunted game – apparently without any utilitarian purpose – to memorize the hunt and celebrate the hunted. The earliest surviving hunting trophies, one might say! In these days hunting was essential for survival, but it had already recreational and cultural associations. The hunter-animal relationship was more to than simply killing and eating the prey. And all decent hunters still show a strong and determined empathy and respect toward the animals they hunt – the ancient root of the modern hunters’ concern for conservation.

Nzou’s empathy for lions is apparently limited. He asked “did all those Americans signing petitions understand that lions actually kill people? That all the talk about Cecil being “beloved” or a “local favorite” was media hype? Did Jimmy Kimmel choke up because Cecil was murdered or because he confused him with Simba from The Lion King?” In Nzou’s village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, “no lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname. They are objects of terror!”

In relation to wildlife viewing tourism Dr. Cooney appropriately asks who earns the returns – and states that such tourism exists only in relatively few areas of some southern and eastern African countries and that the returns primarily flow offshore or to already wealthy elites.

If sustainable hunting is taken out of the equation on pressure by a well-meaning, but under-informed and emotionally charged public, the sad fact is that most wildlife will be persecuted, shot and driven off these lands, just like they were in all these countries before last century’s wildlife reforms”, Dr. Cooney concluded. Dr. Jones concurred saying that “if the long-term survival of an animal population means the long-term financial sustenance of a community, then that population will likely survive.”

Dr. Jones reasoned that “governments have to justify all land use in economic terms. If hunting is not available to some communities, then their alternative is raising livestock, which takes a heavy toll on land and water resources. So it really does make more sense to lose an individual animal of an individual species now and then rather than risk losing an entire ecosystem.”

Dr. Jones also mentioned that Wilderness Safaris, a leading photo-tourism operator, has a position paper on trophy hunting, stating, in effect, that ecotourism, on its own, cannot ensure the conservation of Africa as a whole and that hunting has been vital in mainstream destinations like Southern Africa and less mainstream destinations like Central African Republic or Burkina Faso.

In South Africa, game ranches literally changed the country’s landscape. In the 1960s there were a mere handful, in 2002 the number had risen to about 5,000. Today, the count is over 12,000 and rising. They generate revenue in various ways, ranging from ecotourism to the sale of live animals, but hunting makes the most money by far.

There are negative developments too, like the highly questionable practice of breeding mutant animals or the enhancement of horn length in ungulates by using specialized feed formula. Notorious is the totally inacceptable breeding of lions for killing by executioners who are unfortunately confounded by the public with hunters. But in general, the development has been good for the ecosystem. Despite of the poaching onslaught, South Africa still has an astounding number of black and white rhinos, and the ungulate populations have gone from around half a million animals in 1966 to close to 20 million today. The main driver of this development was hunting, and the huge cash injection through local and visiting hunters.

Stewart Dorrington, a former president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of South Africa and a life-long game rancher, puts it simple: “My hunting price is $2,500 for a kudu, more than 10 times what the meat of one of these antelopes would bring. If you stop hunting, the market is going to change completely; it’ll go to meat value, really; less than 60 cents a pound”. Many scientists agree.

Vernon Booth, a Zimbabwe-based ecologist who has worked in African wildlife management for 30 years, said that “lions were now protected because of the high value attached to them [by hunters]. Locals tolerate them because of the income that trickles down. Without the hunt money, locals would increasingly poison lions, which are considered dangerous to people and livestock. If there is a complete ban on lion hunting, the tolerance levels for lions would just plummet and lions would be exterminated very quickly outside protected areas”. Mr. Booth added that “even though hunting may seem unpalatable to a lot of people around the world, it is actually very, very necessary”.

Mikkel Legarth of the Modisa Wildlife Project in Botswana was very explicit in his talk on “How the ban on lion hunting killed the lions [in Botswana]”. Listen for yourself to Legarth’s presentation when he says that the Botswana lion hunting ban lead to significantly increased numbers of lion killing by cattle ranchers. And Mr. Legarth can certainly not be counted as an avid supporter of hunting – but he is a realist!

Glen Martin, author of Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife (University of California Press, 2012) quotes from Dr. Richard Leakey’s address to the Strathmore Business School, Nairobi in the California Magazine. The renowned paleoanthropologist said “my friends say we are very concerned that hunting will be reintroduced in Kenya, let me put it to you: hunting has never been stopped in Kenya, and there is more hunting in Kenya today than at any time since independence. (Thousands) of animals are being killed annually with no control. Snaring, poisoning, and shooting are common things. So when you have a fear of debate about hunting, please don’t think there is no hunting. Think of a policy to regulate it, so that we can make it sustainable.”

Most mainstream conservation groups, wildlife management experts and African governments support hunting as one way to conserve wildlife. It is not a contradiction in terms, they contend; hunting is one indispensable sector of a complex economy that has so far proven to be the most effective method of conservation, not only in Africa but around the world.

There are only two places on the earth where wildlife at a large scale has actually increased in the 20th century, and those are North America and southern Africa where conservation was built around hunting,” said Dr. Cooney. One might add that Europe has its own successful model which has always included hunting – in fact red deer, boar and chamois populations expand so rapidly in landscapes steeped in deeply rooted hunting traditions that paradoxically the Green parties across Europe today call for ever higher hunting quotas. This does not lack a certain irony! The Spanish ibex populations have risen to record numbers on the Iberian Peninsula because of the cooperation of hunters and landowners with government authorities. And in Asia the once highly endangered markhor has made spectacular comebacks in Pakistan and Tajikistan because of integrating trophy hunting and community interests – as a side effect snow leopard populations also increased.

We all know that there are some major problems with current governance of hunting in Africa. The present systems have its flaws and failures. Better control, more science, more dedicated benefits to local communities and more hunter education are needed. It is upon us that the death of the particular lion in Hwange is converted into a catalyst of such improvement.

But most importantly we should listed to Goodwill Nzou when he says “we Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people … and please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.”

The “Cecil Story” now had a tragic aftermath. On the morning of August 24th Quinn Swales a 40-year old fully qualified and very experienced Zimbabwean professional guide professional was fatally mauled by an adult male lion while leading a bush walk with guests of Camp Hwange. The lion was – at least according to some reports – also collared. I do not want to make rash assumptions, but could it be that the recent global outcry made Quinn hesitate to use his rifle for a crucial and ultimately disastrous moment?

Author: Gerhard R. Damm

Photo credit on opening page: James Hopkirk, Creative Commons