RIP Cecil the lion – what will be his legacy? And who should decide?

Outrage over the death of Cecil the lion has led to calls for a ban on trophy hunting, but would this have the desired results?

Rosie Cooney's picture
Guest blog by
31 July 2015

Rosie Cooney is chair of the IUCN's CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group

Cecil the lion, who was controversially hunted and killed last week, is pictured in 2014. But a ban on trophy hunting may not save lions and have unintended consequences (Photo: Vince O'Sullivan, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Cecil the lion, who was controversially hunted and killed last week, is pictured in 2014. But a ban on trophy hunting may not save lions and have unintended consequences (Photo: Vince O'Sullivan, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Cecil the lion, a magnificent and much loved senior male, was lured out of a safe haven in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park last week and illegally shot, to endure a protracted and painful death. 

Global outrage and calls for a ban on trophy hunting have followed, but what would be the consequences if such a ban was introduced?

Trophy hunting is the "high value" end of hunting, where people (often wealthy and mainly Westerners) pay top dollar to kill an animal. In southern Africa an area close to twice the size of the region's national parks is used for trophy hunting. 

It arouses disgust and revulsion – animals are killed for sport and in some cases (as with lions) not even eaten. Even the millions of weekend recreational hunters filling their freezers are uncertain about trophy hunting.

It seems to have little place in the modern world, where humanity is moving toward an ethical position that increasingly grants animals more of the moral rights that humanity grants (in principle at least) to each other. 

So let us move now through the thought bubble where the European Union and North America bans the import of trophies; Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and others ban trophy hunting; the airlines and shipping lines refuse to carry trophies; and the industry dies a slow (or fast) death, ridding the world of this toxic stain on our collective conscience.

Would a ban save lions?

We turn to survey southern Africa, proud of what we have achieved by signing online petitions, lobbying politicians, our Facebook shares and comments. Did we save lions? Have we safeguarded wildlife areas? Have we dealt a death blow to wildlife trafficking? Have we liberated local communities from imperialistic foreign hunters?

Let's go back to Hwange National Park, the scene of Cecil's demise. The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, responsible for managing this park, derived most of its income for wildlife conservation across the country from trophy hunting. With minimal revenue from central government (not well known for its good governance and transparent resource allocation), it is now in trouble. 

Hwange staff have been radically cut, and there is little money for cars or equipment. Bushmeat poaching is on the rise and the rangers are ill equipped to cope. The commonly used wire snares are indiscriminate, and capture lions and other predators, who die agonising and pointless deaths.

Communities pay the price

In Namibia, more than half of the community-owned conservancies (covering 20 per cent of the country) have collapsed because the revenue from non-hunting sources (mainly tourism) is not enough to keep them viable.

Namibia's innovative communal conservancies have been responsible for dramatic increases in wildlife outside of national parks, including elephant, lion and black rhino over the last 20 years, with income from trophy hunting and tourism encouraging communities to turn their land over to conservation.

Communities retain 100 per cent of benefits from sustainable use of wildlife, including tourism, live sales and hunting – almost 18 million Namibian dollars in 2013

This money was spent by communities on schools, healthcare, roads, training, and on employing 530 game guards to protect their wildlife. Now it is gone. A few conservancies have managed to find wealthy philanthropic donors – but they cross their fingers the generosity will continue to flow for decades to come.

Communities are angry – they were never asked by the outraged what they thought about this. Few journalists or social media activists ever reflected their side of the story. Their right to make decisions for themselves has been expropriated by foreign people, who are not accountable or responsible for living with wildlife.

Disappearing wildlife

Where the conservancies have collapsed, wildlife has largely been wiped out. The bad old days have returned, and wildlife is worth more dead than alive.

Hungry bellies are fed with illegal bushmeat and the armed poaching gangs have moved in. Communities are no longer interested in helping police to protect wildlife, game guard programmes have collapsed for lack of funds, and rhino horns, lion bone and ivory are being shipped illicitly to East Asia.

In South Africa, trophy hunting has stopped, including the small proportion that was "canned" (where the lion is effectively trapped). On the private game reserves that covered some 20 million hectares of the country, though, revenues from wildlife have collapsed.

Those with scenic landscapes that are easy to access and have adequate infrastructure can make enough from photo-tourism to be viable. But other landowners are returning to cattle, goats and crops in order to educate their children, run a car, pay their mortgages.

Wildlife on these lands has largely gone along with its habitat – back to the degraded agriculture landscapes from before the 1970s when wildlife use (including hunting) became legal here. Lions that were on these farmlands are long gone, and those that remain in national parks are shot as problem animals as soon as they leave the park.

Speculative? Yes, but a reasonable prediction. This has happened before.

Bans on trophy hunting in Tanzania (1973-78), Kenya (1977) and Zambia (2000-03) accelerated a rapid loss of wildlife due to the removal of incentives for conservation. Early anecdotal reports suggest this may already be happening in Botswana, which banned all hunting last year. 

Let us mourn Cecil, but be careful what we wish for.

Rosie Cooney is chair of the IUCN's Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy(CEESP)/Species Survival Commission (SSC) Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group. These views do not necessarily reflect those of IUCN. 

Was this page useful to you?


Cyrille AltmanAugust 2015

Thank you Rosie, I think that our French Hunter's community is totally agree with your comments... I just would like to tell that we don't have to speak about sport... peoples don't hunderstand about this refences. Hunting it's not a sport, it's a way of life for most of us and all over the world.It was difficult yesterday for my son and I, to explain the utility of hunting to non hunter people. The balance of the wildlife must be regulated by hunter's and scientific's, the trophy 's competition is not the solution for me. It's the only way to get to this wildlife crime result! Corruption is starting when we start to put a price on the animal trophy. I'm sorry for my bad english, but i hope that everybody would hunderstand what I mean...

Rosie CooneyAugust 2015

Dear Cyrille, Thanks for your comments - while I am not a hunter, I have great respect for the way many hunters clearly invest enormous amounts of time and energy in conserving and restoring habitat and populations. Corruption is certainly a significant problem with trophy hunting in Africa, and I hope one good thing to come out of the Cecil saga will be a renewed focus of the hunting industry and the regulators to focus on increasing monitoring, transparency and returning a greater share of benefits to local communities who live with wildlife.

Peter AAugust 2015

If the wildlife (trophy) has no "value" how and why would it be protected?
Most Western folk refuse to believe that there is no government funds to protect wildlife in these countries.

Rosie CooneyAugust 2015

I am not entirely clear on what you are asking here, but it is worth pointing out that government commitment to funding conservation is inadequate and declining even in most "rich" countries, and the pressures are far more intense in poor countries grappling with acute poverty. But even in the USA, around three-quarters of state wildlife agency budgets come from taxes/fees generated by hunting, including large sums generated for habitat protection, translocations, restoration etc from the sale of the rights to trophy hunt a small number of animals. Is the rich world really in a position to seek to cut off this option for poorer countries?

trees are busting in co2August 2015

This article reads as pro- illegal hunting and entrenched antiquated economics. Disappointing for the chair of sustainability and livelihoods at the international union for conservation of nature why not focus your work with the institution on outside investment on eco-system services using Cecil's unnecessary death as the catalyst?

Rosie CooneyAugust 2015

Thanks for your comment. I admit I am bewildered as to how this can read as pro-illegal hunting. Could you explain this, and also what sort of antiquated economics this represents? It would also be great to hear how newer economic thinking would cast a fresh light on this. In terms of catalysing external investment on ecosystem services, by which I presume you mean PES schemes, this is an important avenue of work and there are some innovative and successful models emerging (see e.g. land leasing in the Maasai Mara, or the COMACO scheme in the Luangwa Valley, Zambia). It may well be that alternative approaches can be found that generate the kind of landscape level, low transaction cost, long term funding that is needed to maintain these lands under wildlife and support parastatal wildlife management agencies. Right now, though, these are isolated and small in impact, and there is no realistic short/medium term prospect of them generating adequate funding.

CharlieJuly 2015

You and many others just "don't get it". In every debate their are some that will never believe anything including proven facts such as the results Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia and what we are already seeing in Botswana. Part of the problem is the corruption of Govts the world over, when the funds that are taken in are not appropriated as they are told to us in the public. The other major part of the problem here and in many other aspects of life is the greed of people (see my ref to govts above) and the over population of the world. I'm not suggesting that we exterminate people, but the ever increasing population and expansion into areas where wildlife currently flourishes, but depends on the ecosystem sans humans has a very negative impact on wildlife and always will. For instance people that are hungry in any of these countries and any other for that matter, will do what they have to, to survive and if that means killing a protected animal to eat or sell, they are not going to care about any laws. Leave this unchecked and there will be a lot more than elephants and rhinos becoming extinct completely without hunting.. Proper management is key and when we are all dependent on govts. always doing the right thing, is where we can hope for the best and if not achieved, stand up and vote for change.

Nigel MillerAugust 2015

The author conveniently neglects to mention that trophy hunting is allowed widely in both Tanzania and Mozambique but both countries have experienced a drop of over 50% in their elephant populations in the past 5 years. Both countries are also experiencing massive deforestation and the rhino was declared extinct in the latter country in 2013. Only a few days ago Tanzanian poachers crossed the border into Kenya and slaughtered a small herd of elephants before returning. South Africa estimates that 90% of the rhino poaching in Kruger National Park is by Mozambique nationals crossing the border.

So I ask you - where are the anti-poaching and conservation forces in these countries ? You know, the ones allegedly funded by the multi-million dollar revenue from trophy hunting ? It is all very well telling us that wildlife will be exterminated without said revenue but the truth is that it isn't making one bit of difference.

Now let's look at the Cecil case. There is an infamous article posted in 2013 by Dallas Safari Club that defines "The Ideal Huntable Male Lion".

Cecil was a member of a coalition pride with dependent cubs, and in accordance with these DSC criteria he should have been left alone. But that didn't stop Palmer and Bronkhorst from baiting and killing him. Which begs the question, how many other "legal" and "ethical" hunters are also ignoring the guidelines set down by DSC, doing whatever they please and getting away with it ?

Rosie CooneyAugust 2015

Dear Nigel, thanks for your comment. You make the argument that in Tanzania and Mozambique hunting occurs, and yet both are experiencing major poaching problems, as well as their nationals poaching in Kenya and South Africa. I agree entirely. But you could apply the same argument to tourism or National Parks in all of these countries - both help to some extent to generate land/revenue/incentives for conservation and protection, yet none of these is a silver bullet that removes the problem entirely. The real question we need to ask to understand the impact of trophy hunting is - would things get better or worse without it? This is where the debate needs to be at. If we conclude that things would be worse without it, we then need to focus on supporting better regulation and better practice so that the actual and potential benefits can be improved.

Anthony L RoseSeptember 2015

Obviously you are defending Trophy hunting, Rosie ... the debate is not "how can we benefit more from trophy hunting" -- it's how can we benefit most by ending it.

To have wealthy internationals supported by conservationists in their killing and trophy taking undermines the case for stopping poachers and traders. That's a credibility loss phenomenon that's been undercutting the anti-poaching laws for decades. When we finally stop rich outsiders from paying for operating above local laws, we'll need to beg penance from local poachers just to get back to ground zero. Then we need to help them find other livelihoods... just as the Big Game Hunters need to find other ways to engage wildlife. 

Rosie CooneyAugust 2015

Dear Anthony, thanks for your comment. It seems the key argument you are putting forward is that legal trophy hunting undermines the case for stopping poachers and traders. Can you put forward any evidence of this? Its an interesting line of argument. cheers R.

Jim StockleyAugust 2015

Thanks for this brave article. Too many people who should know better are keeping quiet. While we stand back and wait for the haters to arrive, know that your opinion is shared by many here in Africa.

Anthony L RoseSeptember 2015

There is no ethical or moral ground on which a gun or cross-bow trophy hunter can stand. Be it lion or elephant, lynx or eland, the idea of hiding in a thicket unseen and blasting a hole through flesh, breaking bones, and bursting the brain or heart of a living sentient social being for personal thrill and social bragging rights is perverse at best, contrary to the tenets of compassionate conservation, and anathema to the billions of people who truly value the sanctity of all living beings. If IUCN/SSC and our supporting corporations want to get money for wildlife protection from wealthy "adventurers", offer them opportunities to shoot photographs and video of the animals they covet, with experienced wildlife photographers as their trainers and guides. But don't undermine our attempts to curtail illegal local body part and bush meat trade by selling the right-to-kill wildlife in Africa to international animal-head collectors. And as for those who fashion a "Way of Life" out of flying a few thousand miles from home in the city to tent camp in the forest for the Thrill of the Kill ... I hope you will find a pastor or psychologist to help you revise your passions and your priorities. As "Big Game" dwindles towards extinction, the hunters' game is clearly a dead end.

william huardAugust 2015

People are paying attention to this issue. This issue has flown under the radar in the States for sure. While the trophy hunting organizations- Dallas Safari Club, Safari Club, and, the most dangerous-"conservation force" have been using a well funded propaganda machine attempting to convince people how trophy collectors fund "wildlife management." canned hunting is legal in 20 States, and, hunter extremists are holding predator killing contests for cash and prizes on public land- land that belongs to all Americans. While this is going on- our FED USFWS is trying to give control of Endangered Species back to States who have shown no ability to manage anything.

Safari Club openly allows and welcomes canned trophies from any an ALL trophies in their record books- meanwhile- they are busy trying to defend canned hunting in South Africa from the "anti-hunters."

WWF is trying with Chris Weaver's well funded American ammo manufacturers- to turn Namibia into another South Africa- where they breed ungulates on private farms and sell these animals for top dollar. Lions have become a mere commodity in South Africa - where- the final disrespect- the lion bone is sold legally to chinese dealers. People are not stupid- how does selling animal parts on the open market not fuel poaching?

The Palmer case shows the "sleazy" culture of American narcissism.

The trophy hunting lobby prefers to do business with unstable governments like Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe- where, outfitters and greedy concession owners can sell the resources for top dollar. Heck- for a premium you can shoot an icon with a crossbow, an animal who represented the wild heritage of Zimbabwe- and, who generated millions of dollars in tourism revenue. Revenue generators like Big John in Zambia-( no one has taken credit for that "harvest") Old Boy and Leonardo in namibia, or more recently Cecil in Zimbabwe- are a threat to the future of trophy hunting- after all- all the wildlife should be they are turnips!

M_August 2015

Really nice take on this.

Hunting vs not hunting is not a clear debate. We need to try an ensure that whichever route we take as humans of the Earth, that it is sustainable and tries to ensure the total survival of as many species as possible.

I really hope we can have calm, rational conversations like you did above. Really enjoyed this. Thanks

Dilys Roe (IIED)September 2015

Thanks Rosie for bringing some fresh insights to the Cecil debate. In too much of the mass media this sorry tale has been used to make the case that all trophy hunting is bad, canned or illegal. Clearly the hunting industry as a whole needs to clean up its act and be better regulated but simplistic calls for blanket bans overlook the enormous value that hunting has for conservation and for communities when it is well managed and based on sound sustainability principles.

SomsaiAugust 2015

I'd urge folks to follow the link in the third to last paragraph to a peer reveiwed article in Conservation Biology on the rapid loss of wildlife when trophy hunting is curtailed.

Jeppe KoldingAugust 2015

Well done Rosie. Bravo.

Willem WijnstekersAugust 2015

Excellent piece of writing Rosie. Will share with my nework.

Silvio CalabiAugust 2015

It is beyond time for the legitimate, disinterested media to address the true impacts of hunting for sport. How about it, National Geographic, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, Time, Vanity Fair and others? Give the general public a three-dimensional look at what trophy hunting—licensed, legitimate, fair-chase, fee-paid and so on—really means to conservation and sustainability. Until then, emotion and ignorance will carry the day and wildlife will pay the price.

Rosie CooneyJuly 2015

Yes, it is disappointing to see so many major news outlets providing a very simplistic and one-dimensional take on this issue, often lumping recreational hunting in with the poaching for international illegal wildlife trade and bushmeat that is having such devastating impacts in so many areas.

Duncan SchroeterAugust 2015

Statistics are always better than speculation. Statistics tell us that income from trophy hunting accounts for at most (in Zimbabwe) about 3% of tourist income and in most countries as little as 1%. By far most of the hunting income goes into the pockets of the operators of hunting and only a trickle reaches the other inhabitants. The argument that is also put that the hunting professionals provide anti-poaching patrols merely serves to send a message to poachers that "you cant kill the animals because I want to". No wonder that in the decades this has been going on it has done nothing to improve the situation. The reduction in lon numbers has been alarming and has many causes including habitat loss but of those killed by humans by far the most have been by hunters. Killing is NEVER conservation.

Stephen GrahamJuly 2015

The article points out that hunting was banned in Kenya in 1977. Whatever its impact at the time, the country developed a successful tourism industry that was doing well enough without hunting revenue until terrorism recently began deterring international travellers. Much community-owned land (e.g. adjoining the Masai Mara reserves) has been turned over to wildlife to bring in tourists armed only with cameras. Debate on improving conservation funding has centered more on moving upmarket than allowing hunting. So it seems too strong to imply that conservation needs hunting. Rather, the case of Cecil has exposed an unpalatable business that could put a significant number of visitors off visiting countries that allow trophy hunting. Hunting not only jars with anti-poaching efforts, it also runs counter to the ethical appeal of helping to conserve wildlife either by making donations or going on safari. Surely Kenya's conservation 'business' has a marketing advantage from avoiding that dilemma.

Wulf Gordian HauserSeptember 2015

Thank you for this excellent and thoughtful article. If I may, I would like to add the following thoughts to it:
1) The field Trial for what happens when sustainable hunting is prohibited was made in India by Indira Gandhi in 1972, when all hunting was prohibited. Today, the tiger is practically extinct because it has no (legal) value. The expansion of the Population led to more and more contacts between farmers and tigers, with tigers naturally killing some lifestock. If the tiger has no commercial value, the decision for the farmer to poison a carcass and kill the tiger Comes very easily.
2) The romanticisists of lion life who bemoan the killing of these truly magnificent animals by shooting should stop for a moment to contemplate the fate nature has in store for the lion which is not shot and killed - he will almost invariably be eaten alive by hyenas once he gets too old and weak to defend himself. Contrary to a clean shot, this is usually a drawn out and extremely bloody and - for the lion - painful affair.
3) The good people who try to protect the game from hunting should also contemplate the hardship wildlife causes to the local population. The National Park of Gonaredzhou in Zimbabwe holds about three times as many elephants as should be there in a balanced environment. These elephants will leave the park and raid the maize fields of the local Population, quite literally condemning families to famine. If the farmers try to defend their fields with firebrands, they are quite often killed by the elephants. For as long as there is legal hunting around these parks under well-designed programs, substantial benefits go to the local population as a partial compensation for the hardships we ask them to endure to make our photo safaris possible. If you take this away, the protection of the magnificent wildlife of Africa will loose the support of the local population which will be the most fertile ground for poaching.

John D. C. LinnellJune 2014

A fascinating discussion that shows some very clear fault lines within conservation. I at least grew up within the "sustainability" culture - and there is no doubt that hunting (be it called trophy, sport, recreational) can be conducted in a way that does not endanger the conservation status of the wildlife species in question, and can bring economic benefits to local communities as well as allowing this often socially and culturally important activity to continue. Here I'm thinking of examples from Europe, North America, for example. To do this there is a need for regulation, strong institutions, good science etc. Against this background well-regulated hunting does not need to be a conservation problem, although unregulated hunting and poaching can of course lead to extinction. However, this debate is also showing that there are many people within conservation who are not only or primarily concerned about preventing extinction and promoting sustainable use (the traditional values at the core of the conservation movement and the backbone of all existing international conservation legislation) - but are apparently morally opposed to animals being killed by humans. While this is a widespread movement it is a very separate debate than the traditional conservation debate. The intermingling of these two different value agendas is making this debate very complicated and not particularly constructive. It does indicate that we need to re-examine the value basis of the present generation of conservationists - to see if sustainability, as opposed to protectionism, is still the dominating value platform of the movement.

Bernadette WilliamsAugust 2015

I listened to the interview with CNN on Cecil the Lion. I was shocked at Rosey's innocence with regard to quoting the Zimbawbian government. Does she not know how environmentally unconcerned the Zimbabwian government really are? The President served an elephant as part of the banquet for his 90th Birthday Celebration. This man and his government do not make decisions on trophy hunting for the good of their wild life. One of the accused poachers is rumored at not receiving the proper consequences for the crime due to his political connections. The present farming in Zimbabwe is a total mess. This country is totally impoverished and without proper order due to a government who care only for their own gain.

I hope that there is enough interest in the world for the beauty of Africa and its wildlife without having to resort breeding these great animals for their heads and skins to appear on a wealthy westerners walls.

Will we be considering the digging up of the barrier reef so that wealthy Westerners can hang the gems around their necks? Or do we agree that the beauty is in visiting these places to see the barrier reef in its true environment?

Marco Loni August 2015

Well done Rosie! I saw your article and the comments (trying to summarize: mixed feelings about the utility of Trophy Hunting + some examples of local inefficiencies) still I believe you got it right.

Dennis SteinmanAugust 2015

Rosie, I completely agree with your view and, I sincerely believe that ethical and lawfull hunting is absolutely necessary for the successful management of this most valuable gift. I do believe that we should use all means possible to police and eliminate the few that choose to abuse the law and choose to take put their desires above the safety and management of all of our wild game. It is important that we promote ethical hunting practices through education and through the use of all resources available to minimize the pain and suffering of the animals in the process. In the case of Cecil the 40 hour search for the animal could have been greatly reduced or eliminated with a new technology that has been developed by a small startup company in the US. please check it out at and let us knoiw your thoughts.

Gary F. Brennan July 2015

Thanks Rosie for putting the mater in the correct prospective.

SeanAugust 2015

I attended trophy hunting in Namibia, SA, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. I can't agree more with the author.

Dr. Karl-Heinz BetzAugust 2015

Thank you for these good arguments for legal hunting. Our problem is, than nonhunters only see the dead of one animal which was well known and got its name. Nobody is informed about the positiv ecological and social consequences of legal trophy hunting.
I wish we could have some more people having the balls to swim against the present current telling how things really work!

David SperryMay 2016

Your first sentence has "legal hunting" and your third sentence has "legal TROPHY hunting". The first implies hunting for FOOD. The second implies hunting for animal "body parts" (and most likely not eaten). There are vast numbers of people that are ok with the first but NOT ok with the second. Insinuating they are one and the same is indicative of many lumping "non-hunters" against both