male lion with great mane

Looking at Cecil the Lion

Unless you’ve been living in a hole the past week or two, odds are you have heard about the Minnesota dentist that killed Cecil the Lion, a popular favorite who was being tracked and studied in a nature preserve in Zimbabwe. The media, as it occasionally does, has strongly latched onto this story and the reactions have been passionate and far reaching. The story has been picked up by perhaps every major news outlet in the US (for example, on CNN , the New York Times , and Fox News. Jimmy Kimmel made a passionate speech about it on his late night show that has currently received over seven million views on YouTube. What is it that has incited such rage, and is that rage justified?

If you know me or have read my previous posts, you should know that I am a huge animal lover. I am fascinated by virtually all species of animal, large and small, and think that we should do everything we can to preserve species diversity and the long term survival of as many species as possible. However, I also believe that there are times that killing an animal is acceptable. I eat meat and have some leather clothing and items. Is this an instance of a justified animal killing, or did this cross the line into the inexcusable?

Controversial Practices

If there is one thing that I have come to believe in my life, it is that there are very few completely right or wrong answers to questions in life. What one person thinks is the correct way address a situation or solve a problem is often at complete odds with another’s beliefs. When it comes to animals, this is most often seen in the statements of animal rights activists and impassioned vegans who oppose any form of animal use. However, it occasionally arises in ways that grab into the more moderate population as well. For example, there was the situation of Marius the Giraffe last year, the annual Taiji dolphin hunts in Japan, and the long-controversial Canadian seal hunts. All of these have staunch advocates on both sides of the issue that fundamentally disagree.

Sometimes, there are counterintuitive cases where taking animals from the wild can actually be a powerful tool for protecting wild populations. In the ornamental fish trade, there have been huge strides made from organizations (most notably Project Piaba on the Rio Negro in Brazil and the Indonesian Nature Foundation) that are working to create sustainable fisheries in order to bring an economic incentive for the local populations to protect the natural habitats around them. These regions are hugely impoverished and have few options for making a living. By creating a system of sustainably collecting fish, they are able to bring in much needed money and encourage locals to avoid environmentally disastrous trades such as logging and mining.

Similarly, there are similar proponents for and against the trophy hunting of imperiled animals. National Geographic has already written an article examining whether or not the trophy hunting of lions can be conservationally justified. Last year, there was a similar level of media attention to the permit granted to hunt a single endangered black rhinoceros in Nimibia, of which there are estimated to be less than 5,000 remaining individuals. In short, the arguments being made are that by removing older individuals who no longer breed you allow younger individuals to take the lead and that the money being raised by selling these permits can provide much needed funds to finance conservation initiatives.

Where does Cecil fall?

While it’s easy to take an instinctual stance and say that those who argue for these are wrong, I think you have to look to the scientists and researcher who are most closely watching the issue in order to get a more reliable answer. The three organizations who are arguably the most responsible for overseeing global animal populations and regulating trade in order to protect species are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). All three organizations have allowed limited hunting of endangered animals. However, does Cecil fall into this category of an acceptable hunt?

The short answer to this question is no. As it turns out, there was no permit or quota granted for the hunting of a lion in this area, meaning that either none of the bodies responsible for overseeing global animal populations had evaluated whether or not a hunt here would be of benefit to the rest of the population or they had evaluated it and determined that it wouldn’t be. Additionally, Cecil was a key research animal in a protected nature reserve.

While there are times that taking certain animals can be for the benefit of the larger populations, that is by no means the only method available to raise money for conservation. In places such as Africa that are rife with animals that people love and want to see, ecotourism has an enormous amount of power. It has been estimated that Cecil alone probably helped bring in hundreds of thousands of tourism dollars each year. This is far more powerful than the one time sum of $55,000 that was paid to hunt him, of which it is very likely little if any made it to any conservational entity.

At the end of the day, the death of Cecil was not a hunt that was sanctioned with the best interest of the survival of the local lion population in mind. Given Cecil’s local fame, and the fact that he was lured out of the protected area he lived in, it is hard for me to imagine that he wasn’t specifically targeted by at least one person of the group that killed him. This wasn’t a hunt for conservation, it was poaching.

What about the dentist?

One of the big questions surrounding this situation is what will happen with those involved? Reportedly, there were three individuals responsible, the owner of the land on which Cecil was killed, the guide of the expedition, and the person who financed and performed the actual hunt. The land owner and guide are both citizens of Zimbabwe and, to my understanding, have already been arrested and will go through whatever legal proceedings occur in that country. The hunter, though, is a US citizen, back in the United States. What should and will happen to him?

With the nature of social media, there has already been an enormous outcry, calls for justice, and cases of internet vigilantism. It’s the same sort of mentality that in the past would lead to lynch mobs, and there are those who have publically stated that they would join such a lynch mob if it existed. The irony here is that people are essentially calling for the death of a person over outrage from the death of an animal. I hope that if modern times has led to any human progress, the idea of an eye for an eye, kill someone for angering us is no longer truly a serious consideration (unfortunately, I’m not terribly optimistic about this, though). More level headed individuals are calling for him to be extradited to face charges in Zimbabwe, though actually extraditing citizens is a lengthy and complicated matter that doesn’t often happen.

Looking at the dentist, he claims that to his belief everything had gone through legal and approved channels. If this is the truth, then if there is any room for sympathy for him, it would come from being misled into a bad situation. However, he does have a history of lying about the details of his kills and going outside of the approved scope of his hunting permits. That leads to a certain degree of skepticism regarding his innocence. At this point, the USFWS is already looking for him, so we must rely on the legal channels to perform their duty.

Why has this had so much impact?

One conversation that has emerged that I find fairly interesting is the question of why we have been so impacted by this? What is it about Cecil that has gotten everybody’s attention and sparked such outrage? National Geographic has looked at this, and thinkprogress.org has an interesting take on it as well.

Basically, people are enamored by large, regal, impressive animals, to the point that they even have a name (charismatic megafauna). These are the animals that we go to see in zoos. Lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes are all charismatic megafauna, and they are among the species that are most often in the center of events that gain notoriety (even in this post, lions, rhinos and giraffes have all been noted for controversies). People like and respect large animals, and this bond makes many want to protect them. We look at them and see their beauty and are inspired.

While this is fantastic, what is worrisome is that this reverence is largely limited to charismatic megafauna. The vast majority of species are at best neglected and at worst reviled. If this was a story about the death of an Amani Flatwing Damselfly (with an estimated population of less than 250) or a Hula Painted Frog (thought to be extinct until 2011), few would care, and it is this hypocrisy that is most infuriating to me. Many who claim to be animal lovers are, in fact, only lovers of the charismatic megafauna, and many don’t realize that all species form a complex web of life where all members are important.

That brings me back to the goal of this site: to showcase the beauty and the incredible nature of all animals. Check out my photography page to get a look at some animals that you might never look at otherwise. I hope to continue expanding it with more incredible animals, so check back in the future as well.

Have some thoughts? Share them!