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Why Killing Lions Like Cecil Could Be Good for Conservation

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 29, 2015

Cecil the Lion in his prime

Cecil the Lion in his prime

Here’s a counter-argument to the uproar about the killing of Cecil the Lion.  It comes from Niki Rust, a carnivore conservationist at the University of Kent, and Diogo Verissimo of Georgia State University:

The death of a celebrity often makes the headlines, but it is less common that the death of wild animal has the same effect. However, it appears that the entire world has mourned the loss of Cecil the lion, killed on a private game reserve bordering a national park in Zimbabwe. But is the recent barrage of attacks on trophy hunting, and the US dentist who killed Cecil, justified?

Let’s be clear: Cecil was killed illegally, which we don’t condone. The landowner who allowed the hunt on his reserve without the necessary permit should face the justice system. But

this one bad apple should not tarnish an entire industry.

Legally hunting lions in Zimbabwe is highly regulated: it requires various permits and licenses from the client, professional hunter and hunting reserve owner. National quotas aim to ensure sustainable off-take of the species and, in western Zimbabwe, lions are only killed once they have reached a certain age to make sure they’ve had the chance to pass their genes on. As a result, lion populations in Zimbabwe are either stable or increasing.

So if hunts are conducted following these rules, can trophy hunting really help conserve lions? Some argue that even if this were the case, the practice still shouldn’t be allowed because it involves killing a charismatic and threatened animal for fun. Opponents suggest that non-lethal alternatives such as photographic tourism should be the main way in which conservation is funded. But there are a number of problems with this argument.

Hunters are willing to go to remote and unstable areas that most photographic tourists are unwilling to venture into. Far more photographic tourists would have to travel to Africa than hunters to make up the same level of revenue, so the carbon footprint from all that air travel would surely have a significant environmental impact. It should also be noted that the potential for nature tourism is not equally distributed, with the industry often focused only around a few locations. This leaves other regions without access to tourism revenue. Oh, and let’s not forget that wildlife reserves can also kill lions.

If the goal is to preserve populations and species (as opposed to the welfare of individual animals), countries with healthy wildlife populations should be able to use their natural resources to cover the costs of management. This is particularly the case in countries such as Zimbabwe, one of the poorest places in the world.

Zimbabwe has a tradition of using trophy hunting to promote wildlife conservation. Through the CAMPFIRE programme, which ran from 1989 to 2001, more than US$20m was given to participating communities, 89% of which came from sports hunting. In more recent times, populations of elephants and other large herbivores have been shown to benefit from trophy hunting.

Zimbabwean trophy hunting generates roughly US$16m of revenue annually. While it has been rightly pointed out that only 3% of this goes towards local communities, the ethical implications of removing this money without a clear alternative need to be examined.

The economic impact of trophy hunting in comparison to tourism as a whole may not be huge, but what is the alternative if it is made illegal? Zambia banned trophy hunting of big cats in 2013, only to reverse it earlier this year because the government needed the money to fund conservation.

Conservation costs money – so does the damage done by lions killing livestock. It is not clear whether photographic tourism alone could cover these financial burdens.

If trophy hunting is to continue, how can we make it more sustainable? One study suggested we need to enforce age restrictions on trophy animals throughout the entire country , improve monitoring, change quotas over time depending on environmental conditions and ensure lion hunts are at least 21 days long.

Another study found that trophy hunting can be beneficial to lion conservation when the income is shared with locals who live with this species (and have to deal with the negative consequences of their presence).

While it is sad that we sometimes have to resort to killing animals for conservation, let’s not allow emotions to overtake our arguments. Conservation is a complex, difficult industry and needs all the financial help it can get: we are after all living through the sixth mass extinction. How much money will that take to fix?


One Response to “Why Killing Lions Like Cecil Could Be Good for Conservation”

  1. For a different point of view, here’s Audubon columnist Ted Williams. He’s mostly writing about canned hunts in North America, but the bad behavior by some hunters tends to turn up everywhere:

    Why I’m Not Shocked by Dr. Walter Palmer’s Lion Hunt

    I guess the reason I haven’t overreacted to Dr. Palmer’s botched assassination of Cecil the lion is that it was so predictable and expected. He is a big shot in Safari Club International whose members typically behave in this fashion. I remember the tame, caged lions in Texas. They had names like Rachel, Bathsheba, Paul, John, Matthew. They and dozens of other pet lions would amble over to you and lick your hand.

    I wrote this up for Audubon: One canned-hunt operation charged $2,500 to shoot old, toothless specimens, $3,500 for younger cats with better dentition. Canned-lion-hunting outfitter Larry Wilburn of Dayton ran afoul of the law, but only because he left a brace of skinless, headless lions on land managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ticketed for littering and running a commercial venture on government property, Wilburn paid $125 in fines.

    Last time I looked the record book of Safari Club International (the biggest promoter of canned hunts) contained 17 entries for “introduced [from Europe] “North American wild boar,” all 17 from a game preserve in Nova Scotia called Shangri-La, where the “wild boars” were fed commercial hog chow and “hunted” in enclosures that averaged 75 acres.

    The Safari Club espouses fair chase but proclaims that this includes shooting tame animals in pens. “High fence hunting operations worldwide can offer unique hunting experiences to many types of hunters, including beginning hunters,” reads its official statement on canned hunts. One of the club’s most prominent members is rock star Ted Nugent, who runs his own canned-hunt operation in Jackson, Michigan. At least five of Nugent’s kills have made it into the club record book, including a feral boar he shot during a canned hunt in Texas and a bison he shot on, of all places, Alaska’s Kodiak Island, where they’re being raised to be crossed with cattle for “beefalo.”

    “Lunatic fringe” is how Nugent describes people who think canned hunts “degrade the heritage of American hunting.” But Nugent does a pretty good job of degrading that heritage himself. The state of California fined him $1,750 for illegally attracting and shooting an immature buck with a formula called C’mere Deer for his Outdoor Channel hunting show, Spirit of the Wild. Two employees of the Outdoor Channel paid smaller fines.

    Then there’s former president of SCI’s Arkansas-Louisiana-Texas chapter, Dr. Sonny Milstead, an orthopedic surgeon from Shreveport, Louisiana, who made national TV news when the Fund for Animals obtained a video tape of his canned cat hunt at a game ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas. After riding out to the lion pen in a pickup truck, Dr. Sonny approaches the trophy as it reclines trustingly on the ground. Dr. Sonny is protected by backup gunners. When Dr. Sonny shoots, the lion leaps to his feet, clawing dirt. You can see a divot fly from his flank as the heavy bullet slams home.

    The tape also shows Dr. Sonny shooting a penned Bengal tiger as it naps beneath a tree. At the first shot the big cat gets up and runs to the right, dragging its shattered hind quarters. When Dr. Sonny shoots again it somersaults three or four times. Dr. Sonny cautiously approaches, prods the dead trophy with his gun barrel, then flashes the thumbs-up sign. The Endangered Species act makes it illegal to kill even tame tigers without special permits.

    Along with Milstead’s exploits the networks aired a video, obtained by Fish and Wildlife agents, of a canned cat hunt set up by nationally-known outfitter Dan Moody on a ranch 75 miles west of San Antonio. A little black leopard — surrounded by eight or nine frenzied dogs, each as big as it is — cowers in a cage. When it is prodded from the cage it attempts to hide under a pickup truck, then runs into the open where the dogs maul it. Enter Ty Bourgeois of Lake Charles, Louisiana, brandishing a scoped pistol, desperately trying to find a hole in the spinning dog flesh. The cat, a declawed pet, isn’t fighting back. Finally, Bourgeois dispatches it. The canned hunt cost him $5,000 — $3,000 for the outfitter, $2,000 for the federal government as a fine for killing an endangered species without a permit.

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