Patricia Zaat is the director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Canada).
Last week a dentist from Minneapolis allegedly shot dead a majestic 13-year-old African lion named Cecil. Cecil was the leader of his pride, and, by all accounts, a favourite with the many people who visited him in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.
It is an understatement to say that Cecil's death has sparked outrage from people around the globe. The American reportedly paid $50,000 (U.S.) to hunt the lion. When images of the hunter with his "trophy" surfaced, social media exploded. While the dentist's business may be ruined as a result of his callous actions, the reality is that Cecil is not alone – he's just the most recent high-profile victim of trophy hunting, an industry that is pushing lions and many other species such as rhinos, elephants, leopards and polar bears to the brink of extinction.
Over the past three decades, African lion numbers have dropped by more than 60 per cent. Now, just 32,000 of these top predators remain, leaving their long-term survival in jeopardy. The African lion is facing increased threats. Growing human population and corresponding habitat depletion means the African lion has lost 80 per cent of its historic range. Additional threats to the lions' survival include loss of prey species and overexploitation from trophy hunts. Advocates for trophy hunting claim that the revenue generated funds conservation efforts, and injects cash into the local economy, thus staving off the threat of poaching (an activity largely fuelled by poverty).
But the numbers don't add up: Animals are worth far more alive than they are dead.
A 2013 report by the independent organization Economists At Large estimates that trophy hunting provides roughly $200-million to the African economy. That's a paltry sum, when the continental GDP is $2.4-trillion. Further, just 3 to 5 per cent of the value of a trophy hunt benefits the local economy, meaning that in exchange for pushing numerous species to extinction, African people are compensated at most $10-million a year.
Kenya has taken a look at these numbers and decided that its iconic animals are worth more alive than dead. The country banned trophy hunting in 1977, and today, its ecotourism industry is worth more than $600-million annually. That's three times what trophy hunting is worth to the entire continent combined.
Other jurisdictions are following suit. Costa Rica made trophy hunting illegal in 2012. Last February, the European Union changed its import regulations to verify the legality of hunting trophies, requiring a permit to be issued for the import of six species including the African lion. In March of this year, Australia banned the import of all African lion parts. At the International Fund for Animal Welfare, we laud these moves. Trophy hunting is completely unnecessary. The philosophy that you have to kill an animal to save it does not make sense from a moral, biological or conservation perspective. And as Kenya has demonstrated, keeping wildlife alive and in the wild can mean a massive economic boost.
Cecil's loss will be felt by his pride; as the dominant male, he kept his cubs, the females and juvenile males safe from rogue lions. Killing Cecil will likely mean many more lions will die without him. But Cecil's loss will also be felt in the local economy. He will no longer be the draw he once was for the tourists visiting the national park where he lived. Indeed, many tourists may decide to spend their money in a country – like Kenya or Costa Rica – that has placed the preservation of its natural heritage above the cheap thrill of hunting for sport.