The response to the killing of Cecil the lion has surprised even the most ardent wildlife advocate. From the White House to the Zimbabwean government, from ordinary citizens to celebrities as diverse as Jimmy Kimmel and Newt Gingrich, virtually every media outlet in the world has covered the story. It has been the top trending topic on social media for several days running.
I don’t think anyone in conservation, including the scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University who have studied this particular lion, could have predicted this. Their website has shuddered under the attention and money has come pouring in — upwards of US$ 750,000 for their research efforts.
It’s easy to see how this killing drew so much outrage. First, it has been widely reported that the hunt was illegal with no permit issued by the authorities (though the guide contests this). Second, the lion had a name and was known to many who had visited Hwange National Park. Third, the protestations of innocence rang hollow given that the lion was wearing a collar and the hunter had been convicted for a wildlife crime previously. Many in the West saw something wrong about luring a lion out of a national park using bait tied to a vehicle and then shooting it under the glare of a spotlight — hardly fair chase.
Not every killing, legal or otherwise, gets this kind of attention.
On average, one rhino, several lions and nearly 100 elephants are killed every day in Africa. Lions have lost 30% of their population in just two decades and now number as few as 20,000. Elephants have been hit worse still, with as many as 100,000 killed in just three years. And for rhinos the situation is truly critical: There are only 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, and each day brings reports of horrific poaching, sometimes using helicopters. The northern white rhino (a subspecies) is down to just four on the planet. And even the small, harmless ant-eating pangolin is poached on a massive scale, making it the most trafficked mammal in the world.
These efforts are well organized and multinational, involving organized crime and terror networks, making illegal wildlife trafficking the fourth-most lucrative global crime, worth between $8 billion and $10 billion per year.
That’s why seven international conservation organizations including Conservation International have come together to work with the Duke of Cambridge and the Royal Foundation through an effort called United for Wildlife. The purpose: to bring coordinated action to educate, disrupt and reduce demand for iconic wildlife species on the brink of collapse, including the lion, rhino, elephant and pangolin.
A few days ago, I was asked to appear on MSNBC to speak about the death of Cecil. The key point I wanted to convey is that while bad hunting practices and poor enforcement of regulations are harmful to wildlife, the real challenge with conserving iconic species in Africa hinges on tackling large-scale poaching — efforts organized by cartels and terror networks. The scale is truly unprecedented, and if it continues, even legal hunting will be in danger.
There is also the long-term challenge that many people in Africa, especially those who have to bear the brunt of living alongside wildlife, do not get to benefit from either trophy hunting or ecotourism. This perceived lack of value for wildlife, especially dangerous wildlife, has led to apathy at best or hostility at worst. While we may believe that people need nature, for conservation to work we must be able to demonstrate this percept in the field.
The death of Cecil has turned the spotlight of the world on the state of lions and other iconic species in Africa. It would be a shame if all we managed to do was prosecute one dentist, while boatloads and planeloads of animal parts, hides, horns and tusks continued to fill the coffers of criminal gangs and local communities pay the price, without reaping the rewards, of living with wildlife.
M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI. Follow him on Twitter.