The horrific killing of Cecil, the lion in Zimbabwe, has brought about global outrage that is long overdue. Because of his iconic status, his death has received enormous attention that is growing exponentially through social media.
However, the sad reality is that there are many “Cecils” suffering the same fate throughout the African continent as a result of “trophy hunting.” Wealthy individuals will pay tens of thousands of dollars to kill a majestic animal, often in its prime (degrading the gene pool), to make its skin a rug or hang its head on a wall. It is a sad reflection on human ego and the desire to demonstrate dominance over some of the world’s most beautiful wildlife.
What is even more disturbing is that often these “trophies” are some of nature’s most threatened and endangered species, including elephants and rhinos. The Internet is full of images of individuals posing with the lifeless bodies of their victims.
Though supporters of this so-called sport will try to justify such senseless savagery by saying that the money brought in by these hunters supports the economy and conservation efforts, it pales when compared to the billions of dollars generated by tourists who visit the continent on safari to observe and photograph the animals in their habitat — alive.
As someone who has visited Africa 50 times, I can say with some authority that corruption on the continent is rampant. When people like dentist Walter Palmer are willing to pay more than $50,000 to kill an animal, any animal, in a country where the average annual salary is only a few hundred dollars, it is most likely going to happen, legally or not.
To have Palmer and his guides lure this majestic lion off of protected land, wound it with an arrow and have it suffer for 40 hours prior to finally killing it, is not only reprehensible and disgusting, it is criminal. And then to cut off its head and skin and discard its carcass (along with the GPS collar that clearly identified it as a research animal) is sickening. This animal was not killed for food, in self-defense or for any other justifiable reason. It was nothing more than greed, vanity and ego and that cannot be acceptable in an ethical, moral society.
Though I am repulsed by the behavior of people like Palmer, it is unfair to paint all hunters with the same brush. There are those who hunt and the animal they kill is used for food or some other beneficial purpose. Though I don’t hunt myself, I do eat meat and use leather products, so for me to profess that an animal should not be killed to provide food or supplies to humans would be hypocritical.
The ethical deer hunter is practically a necessity to control exploding deer populations, replacing the wolves and mountain lions that have been extinguished from most of their historical range while stocking his freezer with venison that he will consume. I have been with indigenous people who hunt animals in the rainforest because it is the only way they know how to feed their family, and they have greater reverence and respect for those animals than some of those who will criticize them for killing them.
How many of us would rather see our children go hungry than humanely kill an animal to feed them if that was all we knew? Some of the best guides and trackers with whom I have worked in Africa were originally poachers who at the time knew of no other way to survive other than to kill animals. Once they were provided with an alternative and could use their skills to protect animals rather than kill them, they became some of the best conservationists Africa has ever had.
The brutal killing of Cecil, unfortunately, is no different than many other trophy killings in Africa. However Cecil’s notoriety has ignited a firestorm by putting a name and face on this barbaric practice, and I am encouraged by the passionate global response.
Social media has changed the way the world expresses itself. It provides a conduit for anyone to have a voice and in turn, make a difference. There is a saying: “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” My profound hope is that this wave of outrage will continue and wash up onto the decision makers and that changes will be made so that Cecil did not die in vain. More important, it should change the mentality of trophy hunters themselves. I’m sure that many people who were previously considering participating in a trophy hunt are now thinking twice — and that’s a good thing.
As someone who has had the privilege of observing and studying wildlife around the world, I understand the thrill of tracking an animal, getting it focused in my sight, and shooting it. The big difference is that my “weapon” is a camera, my trigger is a shutter release and the result is a beautiful image, captured for all time — one that my subject can walk away from to provide, I hope, the same amazing thrill for the next lucky observer and one that I can share with others and admire for the rest of my life.
There is a wonderful Native American saying: “We have not inherited this Earth from our parents, we are borrowing it from our children.” We must do all we can to respect and protect the natural world. Letting the world know that we will not accept what has happened to Cecil and those like him, while making those responsible accountable, is an important step.
Ron Magill is Zoo Miami goodwill ambassador director of communications.