Tuesday, August 11, 2015


The death of an iconic Zimbabwean lion at the hands of American dentist James Palmer has instigated an international backlash and anti-hunting cries—as if we needed another reason to hate the dentist. However, Palmer may not be deserving of his horrendous media attacking in the aftermath. 

Cecil was popular with tourists largely because he was easily-distinguishable by his black-fringed mane.  Public domain photo.
    On July 30, a black-maned African Lion, nicknamed “Cecil” was wounded by an arrow shot by safarist, James Palmer, who allegedly paid $50,000 for the trophy, according to USA Today. Palmer was hunting with hired professional hunting guide, Theo Bronkhurst, over bait on private land owned by Honest Ndlovu adjacent to Hwange National Park. Upon wounding the predator, caution ruled and the party let the animal rest over night.

    On July 1, Cecil was tracked, found, and killed with a rifle shot. 

    Outrage ensued.

    Cecil was named after Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman and Imperialist who founded the aptly-named Rhodesia in 1895, which became Zimbabwe in 1980. He had long been a favorite of visitors to the national park, largely because he was easily distinguishable by his black-fringed mane. But tourists also note Cecil’s trust in people, often getting as close as 30 feet to cars. 

    Moreover, Cecil wore a radio tracking collar, a symbol of an ongoing research project by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. The 13-year-old Cecil had been under study his entire life.

    So when the radio went silent, the news of Cecil’s death was already known internationally, and hate started flowing Palmer’s way. The typically over-the-top PETA lost no opportunity to label hunting as a “coward’s pastime,” and called for Palmer to be “preferably hanged” if found guilty of killing Cecil.

    Now, I will entertain the outrage:  if there was a living-and-breathing Smokey the Bear, Americans would take offense if a rich Brit staked Jelly donuts outside the boundaries of Shenandoah National Park and took Smokey’s head and hide across the pond to be replicated. 

    However, while Cecil’s death made front page headlines in five major British news outlets, and featured on BBC, Sky News, and CNN, the incident went largely unnoticed in Zimbabwe.

    Maybe that’s because Zimbabwe has yielded an average of 87 trophy lions annually in the past five years, rarely meeting a federally-assigned quota of about 100 cats per year, according to stats compiled by USA Today.

    In fact, foreign trophy hunters are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an opportunity to take an African Lion—one of the “Big Five” African trophy species, along with the African Elephant, Cape Buffalo, African Leopard, and White/Black Rhinoceros, that are widely held as the most difficult to hunt on the African continent. Approximately $20 million per year—3.2 percent of tourism revenue--enters the Zimbabwean economy because of trophy hunting.  Many would argue it’s a vital trade.

    But because of the lion’s popularity among tourists and researchers, legal investigation followed. According to Lion Aid, a charity dedicated to lion conservation, in Zimbabwe, it is legal to bait lions, and to kill lions—even collared ones. However, the animal must be taken in safari areas, forest areas, or game ranches where a quota is in effect. Bronkhurst and Ndlovu were promptly taken into custody for allowing the lion to be killed on Ndlovu’s private farm where no quota exists, and could face fines up to $20,000 and up to 10 years in jail.

    Meanwhile, a White House petition to have Palmer extradited to Zimbabwe to be tried has surmounted its threshold and should receive executive attention. While the misfortunate Palmer is cited as stating “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” Dr. Palmer’s fate will only be told in time.

    Still, the bigger question (at least for me) is whether or not trophy hunts for lions should be conducted in Zimbabwe. It is well documented that the African lion population has shrunk approximately 82 percent over the past century, and there is no law requiring animals of a certain age to be taken, yet hunting is still entertained. At least Cecil was, at 13, a mature animal. 

    Though immoral, tens of lions are killed illegally every year in Zimbabwe, and are rarely investigated. As a legal shooter, Palmer should be able to rest easy. His guides, on the other hand, who should be concerned with responsible wildlife management, have gotten what they deserve. In all, it is clear that the very fact that “Cecil” bore a name and was the “pet” of the Park has fueled the media bonfire that has followed his death—which is why Farmer Brown doesn’t let his daughter name the chickens.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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