The killing of Cecil the lion by a Minnesota dentist in 2015 grabbed the attention of the world. Big-game hunter Walter Palmer reportedly paid $54,000 to slaughter the beloved lion, who was a staple at Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. Palmer wounded Cecil with an arrow, tracked the bleeding cat for hours, then shot him to death with a rifle.
It's rare for an animal issue to break into the mainstream international news, but this story ignited outrage in animal protectionists and everyday people alike.
"I think it's arguable that this is the biggest global response to a wildlife story there’s ever been," said the director of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (Wildcru), which had been observing Cecil via a radio collar. "I think all those people were exhibiting an interest not just in lions but in conservation more widely."
As the tale of Cecil's demise swept global media, we were all listening. What was it about this story that shook us? At its heart, it was about a callous human ending the life of an innocent being—for fun. It was about recreational brutality. It was about an utter, careless disregard for an animal's life.
Although the news coverage about this particular animal faded away, make no mistake: Cecil's nightmare wasn't an anomaly. Other Cecils are being hunted for sport every day, often in ruthless so-called trophy hunts.
A trophy hunt is a hunting practice in which a hunter pays to kill a wild animal, predominantly for “fun”—for the trophy. Parts of the animal, usually the head, are kept by the hunter to commemorate the hunt. The most iconic and expensive species to hunt are known as the Big Five: the lion, elephant, leopard, rhinoceros (both black and white) and Cape buffalo. However, numerous other species are targeted, including giraffes, zebras and various species with antlers. The more impressive the trophy, the better.
The "Big Five" include (from top to bottom) the lion, elephant, leopard, rhinoceros (both black and white) and Cape buffalo:
A lion in Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa, one of the largest game reserves in Africa. (image: Adam Dimmick/Flickr)
Elephant populations have fallen from a few million in the early 20th century to about 415,000 today. (image: Megan Coughlin/Flickr)
Black rhinoceros, one of the last 20 individuals in Serengeti National Park. (image: Andreas Marxen/Flickr)
White rhinoceros family and oxpeckers, Limpopo, South Africa. (image: Frye Mael/Flickr)
Cape buffalo in Shinyanga, Tanzania. (image:jjmusgrove/Flickr)
Trophy hunters justify their cruelty by claiming that trophy hunting aids in wildlife conservation efforts, helps support local communities in which the hunts occur, and contributes greatly to national economies. These claims are deeply controversial. In truth, trophy hunting does little in terms of wildlife conservation, contributing to national economies or supporting local communities. Despite the misinformation that trophy hunters spread, let me be clear: killing is not conservation. How can it be? How can killing animals help conserve species—especially the critically imperiled ones?
Many of the species targeted by trophy hunters are already threatened or endangered. Elephant populations have fallen from a few million in the early 20th century to only about 415,000 today, their numbers plummeting due to habitat loss and poaching for ivory. Sport-hunting is correlated with these declines, putting elephants at risk of extinction in multiple countries. Lion populations are also in danger, with as few as 20,000 lions remaining in the wild, a significant drop just in the past 20 years. A deadly combination of habitat loss, reduction of prey, conflict with humans and a growing international trade in their parts (which fuels poaching and hunting) also puts lions at risk of disappearing.
As for the trophy hunters' claim that their hunts financially support local communities, research finds that only about 3 percent of the revenue from trophy hunting fees actually trickles down to the community level. Where does the other 97 percent go? Certainly not to conservation efforts, as trophy hunters might have you think. The overwhelming majority of the revenue goes to administration costs, government agencies, firms, and various other national or international stakeholders, and even to corrupt government officials who may simply take the money. And don’t believe the pro-hunters' assertion that trophy hunting creates extensive job opportunities for locals. A recent analysis found that trophy hunting only produces about 20 percent of the jobs the hunters claim to exist.
Trophy hunting doesn’t generate much money from its tourism potential, either. What about the wealthy foreigners who travel to African nations to hunt? Their activity typically only accounts for an estimated 1.8 percent of a country’s tourism industry revenues. Simply put, the countries wouldn’t miss it.
It’s crucial to debunk trophy hunters’ claims with actual facts, especially now that big-game hunting is back in the news. The Trump administration is currently deciding whether to keep or reverse an existing ban on importing sport-hunted elephant trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia. All it took was a single tweet from President Trump, who has called this blood sport a "horror show," for ears to perk up across the globe. Additionally, CNN is airing the one-sided documentary "Trophy" on January 14, so the issue is ripe.
In these fleeting moments when media are covering a conservation topic and the public is listening, we have to counter the widespread misinformation seeping in from trophy hunters and their supporters.
The simple fact is that trophy hunting is about killing, and killing is not conservation.
Visit http://bit.ly/2AVmcBS to learn how you can take action to stop trophy hunting. From urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to uphold trophy hunting import bans, to sharing trophy hunting infographics and reports, to spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter, you can use your voice to speak out for animals.