When the much-loved Zimbabwean lion named Cecil was killed by a crossbow hunter, it was a crisis for a pride of lions in Hwange National Park and a public relations bonanza for lion conservation.
News of the hunt by American dentist Walter Palmer was released by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), an Oxford University team monitoring him by satellite collar. It ignited a massive global outcry against trophy hunting and Palmer was forced into hiding. Facebook pictures of him bare chested and hugging a dead leopard stoked the fire.
The US talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel issued a tearful appeal to support WildCRU’s conservation and the organisation could barely cope with the resulting flood of requests for interviews and information which followed.
The money flowed in. Within 24 hours of the broadcast, 2 600 people had donated more than $150 000. A month later it was $360 000 and it soon climbed above a million dollars in donations to Cecil’s memory and lion protection.
A Texas artist printed a sketch of Cecil on tote bags and donated the proceedings of their sale. A Chicago toy maker created a cute Cecil ‘beanie baby’ and sent the profits to WildCRU. American philanthropist Thomas Kaplan matched donations up to $100 000.
The expectation was that WildCRU would use the money to protect lions in the park and prevent any future such killings. With the equivalent of nearly R20-million in the bank, it found no fault with this. But were they in a position to comply?
The answer came two years later when Cecil’s son, Xanda, a pride leader with a WildCRU collar, was shot by a professional hunter named Richard Cooke just outside the borders of Hwange near where Cecil died. Cooke, it turned out, had also killed Xanda’s four-year-old brother in 2015.
Xanda was six years old and a father with several young cubs, most of whom would probably have been killed without him to defend them. There was understandable media outrage following the hunt. An international lobby coalition, Tourists Against Trophy Hunting, called for an immediate end to trophy killing in Zimbabwe.
WildCRU’s response was puzzling and, for the thousands of people who donated to the Cecil fund, disappointing. The unit’s research fellow, Dr Andrew Loveridge, said Xanda was “a very, very lovely animal” and it was “sad that anyone wanted to shoot a lion”, but offered no condemnation of the killing.
Richard Cooke, Loveridge said, was one of the “good” guys. “He is very ethical, he doesn’t cut corners. He has always communicated with us when he has hunted an animal and given us the collar back. He’s not one of the fly-by-night guys. His hunt was legal and Xanda was over six years old so it is all within the stipulated regulations.”
Loveridge added that Cooke “has killed several collared lions in the past,” is a responsible operator and had a legal quota for the hunt. In response to a question about the hunt, Loveridge SMSed: “I believe Richard Cooke was aware of this lion being collared. He is always good about liaising with us. We don’t have any special protection in place for collared animals. So no issue on this from our side. We just need the collar back undamaged as has happened in this case.”
In reply to my query, Loveridge said that, given that hunting is the way African countries choose to legitimately manage their wildlife resources, “we should acknowledge those professionals who obey the rules and regulations set out by wildlife management authorities to safeguard wildlife”.
According to a report in The Times, Cooke said he checked with WildCRU before pulling the trigger. If true, that’s as close as it gets to sanctioning the hunt. Given the massive worldwide blow back from the death of Cecil, this response seems extraordinary. But is it?
With around 20 000 wild lions left in Africa, you’d imagine considerable antipathy between hunters and researchers with conservation in their unit’s title. Those donating in Cecil’s name certainly thought so. But on the ground, the distinction is blurred. The signals may seem confusing, but only if you think WildCRU’s role is to protect lions.
Within the field of biological sciences, an outfit like WildCRU is important to Oxford, not for the protection of lions so much as the attraction of postgraduate students and funding. University research units are, among other things, degree factories cautious about research permits.
In that sense, WildCRU’s survival is more important than the life of a trophy lion. Its job is to understand lions, not protect them. You definitely don’t want to fall foul of a foreign government and lose your licence to be there. And when hunters are a powerful lobby, you need their support.
This is one of the reasons why so many research units in Africa “do science” – often very valuable science – but do nothing to to change the situation on the ground. They remain “neutral”.
WildCRU is no exception. For the past 20 years it has been collaring and studying lions in the park. Its research is highly respected and the unit is the source of many scientific papers. Peace Parks Foundation programme manager Paul Bewsher described Dr Andrew Loveridge, as a great researcher whose work in Hwange is “really exciting and extremely insightful”.
WildCRU says all the right things. A study by the Unit’s head, Professor David Macdonald, Loveridge and others found that sport hunters in the safari areas surrounding Hwange killed 72% of tagged adult males from the study area. Over 30% of all males shot were sub-adult.
A later study by Loveridge and others flags concern that if wide ranging wildlife species cannot be protected even by large national parks, then the long-term future of these charismatic species may be bleak.
“The rule of thumb that a six-year-old male lion is post-reproductive and can therefore be hunted,” he told me. “This is in my experience incorrect and I believe this should be acknowledged in hunting policy and recommendations. We’re also recommending that a no-hunting buffer should be implemented around national parks to prevent hunters baiting and shooting park lions that are regularly viewed by tourists.”
But – so puzzling for activists – the objective counterpoint. Twelve months after the controversial killing of Cecil, WildCRU issued a report to the UK government saying lion trophy hunting was “good for conservation”. Hunting, it said, “can contribute to lion conservation … which constitutes a good reason to tolerate it at least on land that might otherwise be lost to the lion estate”.
In support of its position, WildCRU argued that its role was merely “to provide evidence based on research to policy makers and conservationists. For the Hwange project, they engage with anyone who has a lawful interest in big cat numbers, which includes groups and organisations on both sides of the hunting debate. For that reason, WildCRU itself does not take a position, but simply continues to gather data, analyse it and disseminate the information”. This neutrality is costly. According to reports in the Zimbabwean press, 131 lions collared by WildCRU were shot dead between 2006 and 2015 after they had strayed out of Hwange – about 15 a year (WildCRU says this figure is 20). Most of these would be large males.
In just 21 years Africa has lost 42% of its wild lions. Following a study in 2012, the National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative found lions in Zimbabwe to be “in trouble”. Almost 700 lion trophies were legally exported during the decade under review (2001-2012) but the wild population was estimated at 850 (WildCRU estimates it at 1,500).
“This suggests that, at the current rate and if lion numbers don’t increase, which is unlikely, in another decade trophy hunters alone will have wiped out nearly all remaining lions in Zimbabwe.”
According to Earthtouch News, it also seems that Xanda’s killing contravened the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority policy. This states that male lions of any age known to be leading prides, or known to be part of a coalition heading prides with dependent cubs of 18 months old or younger, should not be hunted.
Given a continent-wide lion population decline and the expectations of thousands of people who donated money for their protection, is WildCRU’s “even-handed” approach reasonable? I asked Dr Pieter Kat of Lion Aid, who has worked with lions in Botswana and Kenya and met with Loveridge. He didn’t think so.
“If WildCRU are scientists, they should be saying there are far too many male lions being shot in Zimbabwe to be sustainable. But hunters have power – they’re a force WildCRU needs to recognise in terms of their long-term viability in Zim. If hunters turn against them, their tenure on Zim won’t last very long.
“However, though it’s not against the law to shoot a collared lion in Zim, has WildCRU ever gone to the government to ask that collared lions not be shot? I doubt whether they have. Why not?
When I met with WildCRU I asked them: “Is your view of sustainable lion hunting based on the fact that the national park will supply lions to hunters who lure them out onto the hunting areas? If lion hunting is sustainable then the hunting areas should be stuffed with lions.”
But they couldn’t answer because they’d never counted the lions in the hunting concessions. And the hunters wouldn’t allow them to for obvious reasons. The concessions are relying on Hwange lions and they know it.
“WildCRU may claim that lion hunting serves to preserve a biome, but it cannot show that it actually benefits the conservation of the species. No hunting operator collecting income or a government collecting trophy fees ever returns any of that money to lion conservation.”
Hunting companies, he pointed out, are also not under any pressure from their clients to be more conservation oriented and are similarly under no pressure from rent seeking governments to take care of wildlife on their concessions.
“We want to know where that $1.3-million from Cecil went. We don’t see any investment in Hwange lions. These guys are getting huge amounts of money but allowing lions to be shot. Of course they’re protecting their research permit.”
So does WildCRU think trophy hunting is good or bad for lions? Its preferred position, it seems, is on the fence. With lions in Africa under terrible threat, history may not judge them well on that. DM
Photo: Cecil the Lion in 2010. Photo: Flickr
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