Large animals have always held humans in thrall. Cave drawings, among the earliest examples of human art, commonly feature figures of bison, horses, aurochs (an extinct wild ox) and giant deer. Nature TV programs and zoos are more popular than ever, and the biggest and rarest animals are always the star attractions.
Lions, elephants and other “charismatic megafauna,” as they are known, draw nature tourists from all over the globe to Africa, where they pump millions into economies that badly need it.
But there’s a dark side to human interest. The majority of megafauna that inhabited the world when humans appeared has gone extinct.
Early humans needed the flesh and skins of large animals to survive. But now such hunts are thrill kills, such as the brutal slaying of Cecil, a black-maned lion that was not only the star attraction at Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, but also part of an Oxford University study to save African lions from extinction.
In fact, Cecil’s fate was discovered by the GPS device on the collar he wore as part of that project.
Hit with the double whammy of habitation loss and wealthy hunters who’ve paid up to $1 million for the privilege of killing rare, exotic animals, African lions are in steep decline. Only about 20,000 of them remain in the wild today, down from 200,000 in the 1960s. Activists are pressuring the U.S. government to place the African lion on the endangered species list.
Elephants and rhinos are faring even worse than lions. There is only one male great white rhino left in the world, and he’s under 24-hour guard.
Unfortunately, in the world of trophy hunters, the rarer a species becomes, the more hunters are willing to pay for the thrill of killing it.
Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer reportedly paid two guides $55,000 to lure Cecil from the Hwange National Park — a preserve. Palmer, who did not have a license for the hunt, then shot Cecil with a crossbow. He tracked the wounded, suffering lion for 40 hours before shooting, decapitating and skinning it for “trophies,” the euphemism hunters use for remains of their quarry.
Cecil — large, exotically beautiful and bestowed with a human name — captured the world’s fascination. His clandestine killing by a rich American sparked global outrage. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a statement that he should be extradited to Zimbabwe, where he should be charged, tried, convicted and “preferably, hanged.”
Forced to shutter his dental practice and close his social media accounts, which featured numerous pictures of Palmer holding the corpses of large and sometimes endangered species, Palmer went into hiding. As of press time, Zimbabwe was trying to extradite him to face poaching charges. One man in Zimbabwe faces criminal charges for helping Palmer kill the lion and another was detained but later released.
The Safari Club International, which promotes big-game hunting, suspended Palmer’s membership and called for a full and thorough investigation. The organization, in a statement to the press, said, “Those who intentionally take wildlife illegally should be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent allowed by law.”
There were calls for Minnesota’s board of dentistry to revoke Palmer’s license for conduct unbecoming his profession.
Protesters created a shrine for Cecil at the entryway to Palmer’s office and carried signs reading, “Let the hunter be hunted.”
“The man disgusts me,” said protester Jenna Blunt of Minneapolis. “I hope his life is ruined, that he’s miserable for the rest of his days.”
Cecil wasn’t Palmer’s first illegal kill. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to making false statements to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services after killing a black bear in Wisconsin outside the authorized hunting zone, according to court documents. Palmer was sentenced to probation for a year and ordered to pay a fine of nearly $3,000.
“It seems like Wisconsin let him off easy,” said Madison animal rights advocate James Harris, who has protested hunting in Wisconsin. “I think the state could do more to protect its wildlife and prosecute illegal hunting.”
Palmer had other ethical baggage. He paid $127,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by a woman who once worked as a receptionist for his dental practice. “Karma’s a bitch,” she said when asked by reporters about Palmer.
Good from tragedy
In the wake of Cecil’s slaughter, numerous airlines, pressured by petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people, announced they would no longer transport the remains of big game animals.
President Barack Obama recently issued a ban on the importation of elephant ivory, and activists called on the United States to go further and ban bringing “big game trophies” into the nation.
But experts fear the killings are unstoppable. Shortly after Cecil’s slaughter, it was revealed that another American doctor — a gynecologist — had illegally slaughtered a lion on the Hwange preserve in April. The thirst for Western dollars in countries where money is hard to come by will always provide an entry point for rich, determined hunters.
Some African officials argue that the large fees paid by hunters to kill the animals are put back into local conservation efforts to save imperiled species.
But in many such hunts, only the guides and landowners pocket money. And given the corruption in many African nations, only an estimated 3 to 5 percent of revenues from trophy hunting is shared with local communities, according to studies. What money does find its way back to the people pales in comparison to the renewable revenue brought in by wildlife enthusiasts who visit the continent to watch and photograph the animals. Those non-violent safaris bring billions of dollars to Africa in a sustainable way.
Kenya, for example, banned trophy hunting and saw a rise in ecotourism as a result. Kenya’s success encouraged Botswana to also change its trophy hunting policies.
Zimbabwe imposed a moratorium on lion hunts amid the outrage over Cecil’s death, but lifted it 10 days later.
Cecil’s death has not been in vain. It shined a spotlight on trophy hunting and helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit, whose researchers were tracking Cecil’s movements.
More than $150,000 was donated within 24 hours after Jimmy Kimmel made a tearful plea on his late-night TV show for funding to assist WildCRU’s conservation efforts. A pair of U.S. philanthropists vowed to help the Oxford researchers raise over 1 million in U.S. dollars.
Even plans to raise funds with a Cecil the lion Beanie Baby are in the works.
“We have to seize this moment where we can all make a difference,” American philanthropist Tom Kaplan said in a statement, adding that if the “death of Cecil can lead to the saving of many more lions, then some good can come from tragedy.”
WiG reporter Lisa Neff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
On the Web …
Read about the #MKE Lion here.