Skip to main content

Ronald Orenstein is a Canadian zoologist, author, lawyer and wildlife conservationist. He is the author of Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis.

The death of Cecil the lion has shocked and angered people around the world. It should. But perhaps the most shocking thing about his killing at the hands of a selfish American hunter and his guides is that there may have been nothing unusual about it. Zimbabwe's government may have created the situation that led to Cecil's death.

Hwange National Park is ringed with private landholdings where hunting is legal, though the land where Cecil was killed did not have an assigned quota for lions. Luring Cecil out of Hwange has been called "unethical" by the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Act makes it illegal to "entice" an animal out of a national park without a permit. However, a 2007 study found that 24 lions radio-collared in Hwange were shot by sport hunters between 1999 and 2004.  Further killings have been alleged since. The difference this time is that Cecil was famous.

Zimbabwe has been treating its wildlife as a commodity for years. Though the kills have decreased recently, its hunting quotas for lions, among the highest in Africa, have been called unsustainable by lion biologists. Lions as young as two years old have been shot for trophies, despite recommendations that only animals at least five years old should be hunted to give young males a chance to reproduce.

In early July, despite protests from around the world (and arguably violating its own laws against animal cruelty), Zimbabwe exported 24 baby elephants from Hwange to a dubious safari park in China, claiming that the move relieved elephant overpopulation. Zimbabwe's Environment Minister at the time, Saviour Kasukuwere, said that "it made commercial sense" to send the country's wildlife to China. The Zimbabwe Independent cited claims that the money went to pay a shoe manufacturer for boots for the military.

Hunters argue that the fees they pay for the right to shoot a lion can benefit conservation and alleviate rural poverty. Conservation is certainly expensive, and money helps – though tourism revenue exceeds hunting revenue in many African countries, and a 2010 study, published by the pro-hunting International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, found that hunting companies in Tanzania contributed only about 3 per cent of their revenues to local communities.

When a hunter is willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars into a corrupt system, the benefits can be hard to find. Zimbabwean blogger Alex Magaisa claims that there is "a huge amount of corruption and skullduggery" in Zimbabwe's hunting industry, and warns that there will be "more Cecils in future." The enormous prices hunters pay tempt operators to give clients what they want, and fund the bribes needed to get it. When hunting quotas are based on the industry's bottom line, and the rules that exist are ignored, trophy hunting becomes little more than organized, legalized poaching, and the hunters' targets little more than contraband.

African lions have been in serious decline for years. Numbering an estimated 75,800 in 1980, a combination of human population growth, habitat loss, disease and hunting pressure has reduced their number to no more than 32,000 today (and possibly a good deal less). It is a decline that has gone largely unrecognized. A 2011 petition to list the African lion under the U.S. Endangered Species Act – a listing that would require the United States to prohibit trophy imports unless they can be shown to benefit conservation – still awaits action.

The revulsion at Cecil's death may have been, in part, because he was an animal with a name. I hope, nonetheless, that it leads countries like the United States, the biggest importer of lion trophies, to take a closer, and tougher, look at "sustainable" wildlife management, and to clamp down on trophy imports that threaten the survival of Cecil's nameless kin. If they do, perhaps Cecil will not have died entirely in vain.