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On Cecil the Lion

Conservationists and animal rights activists opposed to safari hunting in Africa could hardly have a found a more perfect foil than Dr. Walter Palmer of Eden Prairie, Minnesota. His disgraceful, foolhardy, and most likely illegal killing of Cecil the lion outside Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park provides more than ample reason, for the majority of Americans at least, to finally consign the safari hunt to the history books. That would salve the wound, it might even be even be moral, but it might not be as effective a solution as we think.

The outpouring of emotion over Cecil is entirely appropriate. Palmer’s attempt to foist responsibility onto his guides is particularly galling; it was his hunt and ultimately his responsibility. The idea of rich Americans paying handsomely to kill rare animals for the fun of it is proof enough for many people that safari hunting is at best an anachronism and at worst an abhorrence that must be stopped. How could it be otherwise? Conservation is about saving animals. Hunting is about killing them.

But, while mourning the loss of a beloved animal, we need to set aside our instinct to rush to judgement. Hunters as well as conservationists and scientists with long experience in Africa, argue that trophy hunting — though not the thoughtless kind Palmer practiced — can help fund conservation efforts. While there are indeed good reasons to be wary about claims, outrage over Cecil obscures that debate. Much as we might like to slot people like Palmer into convenient roles, conservation in Africa is not a morality play.

Hunting raises legitimate moral questions, but its potential role in conservation cannot be assessed solely in moral terms. For one thing, the people in Africa who stand to benefit (or not) from safari hunting have utterly different and often irreconcilable attitudes toward hunting than its Western opponents. Ultimately it is the attitudes and behaviors of people living in rural Africa that will determine the fate of Africa’s wildlife, and parking lot protests and death threats are just so much internet noise.

The arguments against trophy hunting are visceral, emotional, and simple. By his actions Palmer reinforces the notion that hunting, and by extension hunters, are simply evil.
The arguments for hunting are contingent, qualified, and complex and it is clear who wins in the public mind. Stories like Cecil’s need no explanation. Stories about how trophy hunting can, in specific places and under specific conditions, promote the conservation of the hunted species and the landscapes in which they live, are far harder to tell.

Anyone advocating trophy hunting as a conservation strategy needs to answer one fundamental question: what is it, precisely, that they hope hunting will accomplish? If the goal is to use the fees paid by hunters to promote the conservation of biodiversity writ large, that generates one set of questions; if it is to promote certain valuable species, another set. If the goal instead is to promote rural development, then there are yet other questions.

It is exceptionally hard though not impossible —as experience in Namibia demonstrates — to simultaneously promote conservation and economic development with trophy hunting as the central element. Sometimes you end up with neither — the hunting pressure can become too great for the wildlife resources to bear, and their subsequent collapse leaves both people and the environment impoverished.

The challenge for conservationists is to formulate a baseline for judging if and when hunting can contribute to conservation. Who controls the land and resources that support game animals? Who benefits from those resources, and can they be distributed in ways that that help conservation efforts?

Science plays an crucial role in answering these questions, but they go far beyond science to issues of human rights, political ecology, criminology, public health, and economics. The most successful efforts to bring safari hunting and conservation together are not based on either moral or scientific judgements alone, but rather on the principal of self-determination, in which communities choose how to use land to which they claim some degree of ownership.

The actual utility of hunting as a conservation tool depends on diverse forces coming into alignment, a happy but far too often elusive congruence. Trophy hunting cannot be tied directly to many dramatic conservation successes and it does not remotely resemble a panacea for Africa’s myriad ills. Yet when done right, it can create a powerful dynamic, one that is vital to the kind of transformation President Obama alluded to in his recent trip to East Africa: a shift in political and economic power from the center to the periphery, from national governments still burdened by corruption or post-colonial bureaucracies (or both), to the rural communities at the frontline of both conservation and economic development.

The uncomfortable fact is that safari hunting can help wildlife persist outside of some of Africa’s national parks, where most of these animals continue to live. Yet there is no question that it cannot do so in all places, perhaps even in most places. The challenge is to trade the moral high ground for the contingent and messy particulars – where the real solutions will be found.

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