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
Insight by 
Rosie Cooney
Rosie Cooney is chair of the IUCN's CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group
31 July 2015
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.