Photo: PhotocechCZ/Shutterstock

Angry About Cecil the Lion? You're Going About It All Wrong.

by Matt Hershberger Aug 4, 2015

IT’S HARD TO HEAR THE STORY OF CECIL THE LION’S murder and not be infuriated. Cecil, a famous attraction at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, was popular among tourists and was tracked and studied by Oxford conservationists for years. Then, last month, Walter Palmer, an American dentist, paid a professional hunter $55,000 to help him hunt and kill Cecil. They lured him out of the park, shot him with an arrow, and then hunted him for 40 hours before shooting and killing him. Then they skinned him and removed his head for a trophy.

Since then, it’s come to light that Palmer’s guides went about this illegally — yes, it’s possible for this type of hunt to be legal — and there have been calls for Palmer to be extradited from the U.S. back to Zimbabwe to face prosecution. Outside of the legal system, Palmer has been ripped apart online by celebrities, politicians, and, you know, basically the entire internet. The Yelp! page for his Minnesota dental practice has been flooded with one-star reviews and messages of disgust. He has shut down his dental practice and has gone into hiding.

It’s difficult to feel any sympathy for Palmer. He’s clearly a douche, as is anyone who is willing to pay more than the average person’s yearly salary to kill another living thing purely for sport. And it’s hardly reasonable to expect internet mob justice to be level headed. But because all of this fury has been directed at one man and not at the host of other culprits, Cecil’s death is probably going to be a missed opportunity.

This happens literally all the time.

If we’re being brutally honest, the only reason that this specific case has caused such a perfect storm of outrage is because Cecil is a celebrity lion and Palmer is an easy villain, and we’re a culture that loves celebrities and easy villains. This is exactly how we would behave if Taylor Swift was attacked by King Joffrey.

But the brutal reality is that countless less sexy, non-celebrity animals are killed on a daily basis for just as asinine reasons. In Zimbabwe alone, 49 lions were killed in 2013 legally for sport (it’s called “trophy hunting”). Palmer said he was trying to hunt Cecil legally, but he was convicted of the felony poaching of a black bear back in 2008, so it wouldn’t be a shock if that’s bullshit. Regardless, plenty of people do hunt these animals within the bounds of the law, even though the number of lions in Africa has dropped from 200,000 to around 30,000 in the past century.

The justification for hunts like this are that the money from the licenses often go towards conservation. $55,000 isn’t even close to the maximum price, either — earlier this year, a man paid $350,000 to kill an endangered rhino. Some conservation non-profits, including the big-daddy World Wildlife Fund, have supported limited numbers of trophy killing in the name of funding conservation efforts. But there are also doubts as to how effective trophy hunting is in terms of conservation, and many argue that ecotourism in which animals are shot with cameras and not guns would be a far better way to raise money for conservation.

It’s probably safe to say that if money weren’t in the picture, most conservationists would view trophy hunting (as opposed to hunting for food or for animal population control) as gross, and as totally unnecessary. But money is in the picture, and it’s what’s driving a huge part of the poaching problem.

Rich game hunters aren’t your average poachers.

People like Palmer are not your average poachers. Poaching (which, we should note, is different from a lot of trophy hunting, as poaching is by nature illegal and much trophy hunting isn’t) is rampant in Africa. We are probably in the last days of existence for the Northern White Rhino. This animal has been poached to the verge of extinction — there is a single surviving male, who has to be permanently accompanied by armed guards, and just last week, one of the four remaining females died.

Their extinction was driven by habitat loss combined with poaching driven by demand for their horns. Their horns mostly end up in Vietnam, where there is a prevalent (but totally false) belief that rhino horns are a cure for cancer and hangovers. Poachers also target elephants for their ivory, which is considered a luxury item in developing China.

TRAFFIC, the WWF’s Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, estimates that the illegal wildlife trade that fuels poaching is worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and targets everything from tigers to elephants to sea turtles. Because these wildlife items are considered to be luxuries, they are insanely expensive, which means that the criminal organizations have a huge profit margin and a huge incentive to find ways around poaching laws. Even Al-Shabaab, the Somali jihadist organization, has turned to poaching as a way to fund their terrorist efforts. But the average poacher is not a terrorist or a rich westerner living out a Hemingway fantasy — it’s more often a poor local who’s willing to take a personal risk in order to get a relatively big payday from the cartels and crime syndicates that make the real money.

Poaching is driven by instability and poverty.

Poaching is often made possible by the fact that the local governments where the poaching is happening are very poor, very corrupt, or are in extremely unstable situations that make it difficult for them to enforce any conservation laws. It’s a hard sell as a poor government to take resources away from their citizens (say, in the form of fighting extreme poverty or HIV/AIDS), in order to put it towards the conservation of animals. Those in the illegal wildlife trade know this, and take advantage of unstable situations by going on killing sprees and stockpiling ivory.

While the biggest threat remains the international criminal cartels, these same local weaknesses make it hard to enforce anti-poaching laws against rich westerners like Walter Palmer — poor local officials in corrupt countries are easily bribed, and a lack of local infrastructure for patrolling the borders of parks and preserves make it easy for poachers to lure animals out of the preserves (like Palmer did) or even to come directly into them and kill the animals there.

On the other hand, the countries that are buying ivory and other illegal wildlife products could go a long way towards curbing the trade on the demand side. In 2013, President Obama signed an executive order banning the sale of ivory in the United States. Seeing as China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory, if the Chinese government were to do the same (and seriously enforce those laws), the global demand for ivory would drop off precipitously, and make the trade much less profitable.

What you can do to make sure Cecil’s death isn’t a missed opportunity.

When something horrible happens, the easy thing to do is find the villain and try to destroy him. With the villain gone, we reason, the evil is gone. But this is almost never the case. Villains are created when conditions allow for them to exist. This doesn’t let Palmer off the hook — there are plenty of people who have as much money as he does and don’t get their kicks out of murdering endangered animals — but sending him to a Zimbabwean prison or at least shutting down his medical practice and hounding him out of polite society is not going to save the next Cecil. There are plenty of other villains like Palmer out there, and until we root out the conditions that create these villains, they’re going to keep appearing.

Instead of just focusing on the specifics of Cecil’s case, we should make him into a cause celebre who’s representative of the much broader problem of wildlife conservation and environmentalism. So what can you do to help end poaching and support wildlife conservation?

Cecil the Lion’s death was tragic and avoidable, but it does not have to be in vain. Instead of hounding the perpetrator, leave his punishment to the legal systems of the United States and Zimbabwe, and focus on preventing future Cecil’s from dying.

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