Lionizing Cecil Makes Us Feel Good, But a Trophy Hunting Ban Will Accelerate Slaughter

Elder at Okonjima "Lion's Retirement Home", Namibia. July 2007.

If you fly over parts of Tsavo today—and I challenge anyone to do so, if you have the eyes for it – you can see lines of snares set out in funnel traps that extend four or five miles. Tens of thousands of animals are being killed annually for the meat business. Carnivores are being decimated in the same snares and discarded. I am not a propagandist on this issue, but when my friends say we are very concerned that hunting will be reintroduced in Kenya,  let me put it to you: hunting has never been stopped in Kenya, and there is more hunting in Kenya  today than at any time since independence. (Thousands) of animals are being killed annually with no control. Snaring, poisoning, and shooting are common things. So when you have a fear of debate about hunting, please don’t think there is no hunting. Think of a policy to regulate it, so that we can make it sustainable. That is surely the issue, because an illegal crop, an illegal market is unsustainable in the long term, whatever it is. And the market in wildlife meat is unsustainable as currently practiced, and something needs to be done.

-Richard Leakey, in an address to the Strathmore Business School, Nairobi

Richard Leakey, of course, is the renowned paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and the first director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, the man who was in large part responsible for scotching the ivory trade during the initial round of the Elephant Wars in the 1980s.

I interviewed Leakey a few years ago for my book, Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife (University of California Press, 2012). His words came back to me with the brouhaha over the shooting of Cecil, the most lionized lion on the planet. So did the words of many of the other people I interviewed for the book. That includes Ian Parker, a legendary Kenyan game ranger and warden; Michael Norton-Griffiths, who served as the senior ecologist for Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and managed the Eastern Sahel Program for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Ole Kaparo, a former speaker of the Kenyan Parliament and a leader of the Laikipia Maasai people; and Laurence Frank, an emeritus associate of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Biology and one of Africa’s most respected carnivore biologists.

Ultimately, wild animals are disappearing in Africa because they are worthless to the people who live with and near them.

All these men no doubt are upset to varying degrees by l’affaire Cecil—but not for reasons one may think. They’re probably more distressed by the response to the shooting than the shooting itself. That’s because the uproar over Cecil, the fervent calls for expanding the bans on trophy hunting in Africa, will work againstAfrican wildlife conservation in general and carnivore conservation in particular.

As Leakey points out, regulated hunting—even poorly regulated hunting, as seems the case with Cecil in Zimbabwe—isn’t the driving force in the decline of the African lion, which has fallen from a continental population of around 200,000 to fewer than 20,000 today. Unregulated hunting is the main culprit: Industrial-scale poaching and bushmeat hunting. Ancillary reasons include the inexorable expansion of agriculture and the increasing populations of pastoral peoples, who inhabit their ancestral rangelands in ever-increasing numbers, spearing or poisoning any predator that could pose a threat to their cattle and goats. And it’s also the booming illegal trade in wildlife parts. More than one field biologist I talked to told me how wild animals—particularly predators, rhinos, and elephants—are disappearing in proportion to the rapid expansion of Chinese-funded development projects. Ivory and rhino horn, of course, remain highly prized in China, and lion bone is considered an “acceptable” substitute for tiger bone in traditional Asian medicine; lion and leopard claws and teeth also are much sought after.

An African savannah devoid of lumbering pachyderms and lolling lions may make a New York animal rights activist weep, but to a Samburu pastoralist or Kikuyu subsistence farmer it constitutes a lovely prospect.

But ultimately, wild animals are disappearing in Africa because they are worthless to the people who live with and near them. Kenya’s hunting ban has been in effect since 1977. During that time, the country’s wildlife has declined by more than 70 percent. The country’s subsistence farmers and pastoralists can derive no legitimate utility from the animals. Indeed, wildlife makes their lives harder. Elephants raid their crops, destroy their water systems, stomp cattle and the occasional farmer. Lions, hyenas, and leopards kill their livestock.  Better to shoot the elephant and poison the lion. An African savannah devoid of lumbering pachyderms and lolling lions may make a New York animal rights activist weep, but to a Samburu pastoralist or Kikuyu subsistence farmer it constitutes a lovely prospect, one promising peaceful nights uninterrupted by the trumpeting of elephants raiding the pumpkin patch or the squeals of goats enduring evisceration by hungry lions.

But what about eco-tourism? Why hasn’t that helped? Don’t the eco-lodges sprouting across Kenya like mushrooms after the Long Rains deliver cash, goods, and services to local communities? Aren’t they a very good thing? In a word, no. First, these lodges constitute permanent physical footprints on the wild landscape. They require roads and other infrastructure, and thus fragment wildlife habitat. Locals tend to congregate around them, driving game further afield.

Further, many of the lodges are owned by foreign entrepreneurs and corporations, and the profits tend to trickle up to their proprietors and Kenya’s deeply corrupt oligarchs, not down to the poor farmers and herdsmen on the land.

Michael Norton-Griffiths observes the situation is analogous to a man whose only asset is a goat. But this particular goat comes with many strings attached. The man owns the goat, but he can’t sell it or eat it. In fact, he can’t “exploit” the goat in anyway. The only thing he’s allowed to do is let tourists drive by and take pictures of it. Oh, one more thing: he doesn’t get any money from photo-snapping goat enthusiasts. All profits go to the guys driving the tourist buses. Kenya’s rural residents, in other words, are responsible for the country’s wildlife, but they aren’t allowed to benefit from it.

By Glen Martin

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