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opinion

Big game hunter Walter Palmer is now on the endangered species list. The Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil has gone to ground, with millions of enraged animal-lovers in hot pursuit. If he's smart he'll stay there for a while. Plenty of people think lynching is too good for him. They think he should be shot with a crossbow, tracked while he's in agony, and decapitated. Or he deserves some dental surgery, without an anesthetic.

I don't blame them, really. Crime or no crime, Mr. Palmer's taste in hobbies is revolting.

But he isn't the real villain of the piece. Trophy hunters are often conservationists as well. They usually care about animal sustainability. (Mr. Palmer once paid $45,000 to help preserve elk habitat.) The enormous sums they pay to bag exotic animals makes local people more likely to protect them, since the animals are now a lucrative natural resource. The real villains are the poachers, who are wiping out Africa's most magnificent beasts on a massive sale.

Last year, poaching syndicates wiped out a record 1,215 rhinos in South Africa alone. Their horns are exported to the Far East and ground up for traditional medicine, where they fetch far more than their weight in gold. In Mozambique, the last remaining rhinos were slaughtered two years ago.

The lions are in trouble too, mostly because of habitat loss and conflicts with humans. A century ago, an estimated 200,000 lions roamed across Africa, according to National Geographic. Today there are fewer than 30,000. The real danger to the lions is human population growth, which, in Africa, continues to explode.

Elephant poaching seems unstoppable. In just three years, 100,000 have been slaughtered for their tusks, which will be turned into ivory trinkets for Asia's aspirational new middle class. Two-thirds of the elephants in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, once home to the largest concentration of elephants in the world, have been wiped out. In Zimbabwe's Hwange park – where Cecil lived – poachers killed more than 300 elephants by poisoning their watering holes with cyanide. It was the largest single elephant massacre yet documented.

The elephant world had its own Cecil. He was a majestic bull elephant named Sateo. Poachers killed him last year in Kenya, where he was a national icon. His image had been widely used in save-the-elephant campaigns. Park rangers kept him on special watch because they knew he was a target. But when he wandered too close to the park's borders, poachers shot him with a poisoned arrow. To get at his magnificent tusks, they hacked off his face.

Poverty is one factor that drives poachers to kill. But it is by no means the major one. Many of the poaching rings are organized by international criminal gangs and abetted by corrupt government officials. The trade in "blood ivory" helps to fund war and terror throughout Africa, according to a recent report on the link between poaching and conflict issues. The civil war in the Central African Republic is partly funded by ivory, as is Nigeria's Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. In Sudan, both sides in the conflict fund their wars with ivory. Twenty-five years ago South Sudan's elephant population was 130,000. Today there are only 5,000 left. As Varun Vira, the report's co-author, told the New Scientist, "The modern ivory trade was built on war."

Are you angry yet? You should be.

In the race between the poachers and the beasts, right now the poachers are winning. Yet there's good news. Our sensibilities toward animals have undergone a moral revolution, and so has our desire to protect them. Wanton killing, once regarded as good sport, now sickens us. This is something utterly new in the history of humankind, which has never had a problem hunting entire species to extinction. Mammoths, sabre-tooth tigers and giant beavers once roamed North America. Then, some time after humans arrived, they died out. What did them in? Scientists are arguing about that. It could have been a comet, climate change, hunting, or a combination thereof, but it's likely that humans were involved. The last of the Great Auks was sighted off Newfoundland in 1852. The moa – the large flightless birds of New Zealand – were extinguished by the Maori shortly after they arrived around 1300. In North America, both Native Americans and Europeans were responsible for mass buffalo slaughters. The buffalo, which once blotted out the land during migration season, were reduced by the 1880s to a few hundred animals. Of all the predators, humans are the biggest predator of all.

Today, mass slaughter shocks the conscience of at least part of the world. We now believe it's wrong to wipe out creatures that can't protect themselves. They have a right to their existence, just as we do. The real Cecil, of course, would not hesitate to claw you to death and eat you if he had a chance. But most us don't live in conflict with lions any more. They are not about to snatch our livestock or our kids. They deserve to live in peace.

The real solution to this slaughter is not to outlaw hunting. It's to disrupt the criminal gangs that fund their wars and terror with blood ivory. It's to lean on African governments to crack down on corruption, and to give local people a stake in animal protection. It's to find ways to change the Asian culture of ivory-worship. All of that is hard, but perhaps not impossible if people care enough.

Meanwhile, please go see these magnificent creatures for yourself. It will help to save them. And it will be one of the most amazing experiences you will ever have.