The killing of Cecil the lion at the hands of US dentist Walter Palmer is a story which shows no signs of abating. Social media is in a frenzy not least because this poor animal, a rare named victim among thousands who die without an identity, suffered a slow and painful death. People felt an instant connection with him and were saddened when they learned his backstory as a favourite with locals and visitors alike.
Indeed, Walter Palmer initially tried to justify his actions, and quell public outcry by saying he didn’t realise the animal had been “a local known favourite”
Palmer, of course was spectacularly missing the point. People aren’t outraged because it was this particular lion he killed. It is the fact that he, and so many others like him, pay money to trophy hunt in the first place. Amidst the uproar about Cecil, it is vital that we don’t lose sight of this bigger picture.
Thousands of nameless animals are killed by trophy hunters, or by poachers every year, and indeed during the justified media uproar over Cecil’s death last week, five of Kenya’s endangered elephants were killed by poachers.
Does it make it less heinous because we didn’t know their names, daily habits or back stories? Of course not.
There will inevitably be people who type #cecilthelion at the end of angry social media rants, only to forget the incident, and indeed all animal welfare issues in a day or two. But our hope is that the vast majority who have been affected by this tragic incident, will see it for what it is: an opportunity to show that we are no longer going to sit back and do nothing, as trophy hunters and poachers decimate the remains of the animal kingdom.
In the same way that hunting with hounds enthusiasts try to argue that their bloodsport is a form of wildlife management, proponents of trophy hunting say that they are doing their bit for conservation. The predominantly male, Western hunters pay huge amounts to kill their chosen “trophy” and they argue that these high fees keep hunting at a sustainable level.
Rosie Cooney, chair of the IUCN's CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group recently argued in her blog that trophy hunting money “was spent by communities on schools, healthcare, roads, training, and on employing 530 game guards to protect their wildlife”.
She argues that banning trophy hunting has a detrimental effect on people in the countries where it is happening, and that animal lovers living in other parts of the world have no right to impose their morals on these communities.
It is impossible to believe that anyone who refers to dead animals as “trophies” has a real interest in conservation. Moreover, nobody who travels thousands of miles and pays through the nose to kill an animal, then pays again to have its head stuffed and flown back to their country so they can show it off to visitors, cares one jot about sustainability or local communities either.
Studies have shown that only around 3% of income generated by the trophy hunting business actually reaches local communities, with the hunting industry and the government pocketing the lion’s share for themselves. Trophy hunting benefits only the sociopathic urges of the wealthy hobbiest, and the rich people who get richer by operating the businesses that serve their killing fanaticism.
Far from trying to impose our morals on the ordinary people of these communities where trophy hunting is taking place, we are outraged on their behalf too. Why should their infrastructure be supported by the suffering and death of the beautiful animals indiginous to a community’s homeland? Why should trophy hunters be seen as their saviours in any way when they are partly to blame for the dwindling number of lions and elephants in the countries where trophy hunting takes place?
There are lessons to be learned from countries like Rwanda, who, instead of selling expensive hunting packages, now sell ecotourism permits. These permits, like hunting ones, don’t come cheap. Tourists pay to be guided on a hike by government trained employees and get to see endangered species at close range. Former poachers now work as porters, and the communities as a whole have a vested interest in truly conserving their wildlife.
With these permits, the only shooting that goes on is with cameras. No guns, and no bows and arrows that result in a lion like Cecil dying painfully over 40 hours.
Trophy hunting is about money, bloodlust and egos. Not conservation. In the weeks and months to come, we won’t all be Tweeting about Cecil. But let’s make sure we are all still fighting to put a stop to the practice that ended his life, and the lives of thousands just like him.