Cecil: Part 3: Making the case to understand and embrace complexity

When the whole story about Cecil the lion (Panthera leo) broke out in July, I didn’t expect it to continue “trending” for very long, and I’ll admit that I was surprised this post still had some relevance. In any case, I still planned to post it, because I think the conversations that have been generated by this story have ongoing relevance for hunters and the field of conservation. This particular story might have been the catalyst, and likely it will soon fade from the world of hashtags, but the broader social and political landscape of which this case is a part is important for hunters and conservationists to engage thoughtfully.

I’ve discussed my own personal hunting ethics in a previous post, so this one is concerned more with the technical aspects of this issue and focuses on some of the facts of wildlife conservation and how lion hunting fits in that narrative.

Let’s start with some ideas that I take as truisms for the purpose of this discussion:

  1. Wildlife management/conservation is a complicated task that varies by context. There isn’t a one size fits all approach.
  2. Wildlife management/conservation is more than a scientific matter: it involves interactive and complex social, ecological, and political considerations.
  3. Decisions about wildlife management/conservation cost a great deal of money.
  4. The overall goal of any management/conservation plan is the maintenance of healthy, sustainable wildlife populations.

As someone involved in the field of wildlife research for the purpose of contributing knowledge towards wildlife management, I can say with confidence that it is a very complicated field. At the end of the day, wildlife management is a political issue, and it changes depending on the particular political and economic system, and social opinions of the place. It relies on scientific information, yes, but it is politicians who make decisions about the policies that will be used to manage wildlife, and actions resulting from these decisions require substantial financial investment into ongoing research, enforcement, and administrative costs. In North America, money for wildlife management is generated primarily through hunting fees.

Lion hunting in Africa is not my area of expertise. I’ll put that out there now; but I can speak about it to a degree, because I think my experience with the North American context helps me know where to look for information and gives me a degree of insight into how to make sense of that information.

In order to appropriately assess the effects of the lion hunt on lions, and therefore its merits as a management tool, it is important to understand some basic principles of lion behavioural and population ecology. The status of lion populations is assessed at a subpopulation level. The entire population of lions in Africa can be divided into localized groups of individuals that are considered somewhat geographically distinct, in the sense that they do not move around throughout the entire range inhabited by lions. This means that what is happening with lions in one area of the world cannot be considered indicative of lions everywhere. For example, we can talk about the worldwide population of lions declining on the whole, but look at subpopulations and find that some are increasing.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the largest international wildlife conservation organization and the one that ascribes status to wildlife all over the world, even the effects of lion hunting can vary according to geographic context. In Zimbabwe, for example, the IUCN explains that hunting has a net positive impact on population in some areas, but may have contributed to declines in other areas. Globally, the IUCN classifies lions as “Vulnerable”, but at more local scales, certain subpopulations are classified as “Critically Endangered”, while it has been suggested that others be downgraded to “Least Concern”.  Therefore, once again, it’s complicated and it’s not necessarily productive to just talk about lions in a general sense, but rather we need to be precise about our assertions and discuss the matter in geographically specific ways.

Days after the incident exploded in the media, David Macdonald, one of the researchers who studied Cecil for over 20 years was interviewed by the journal Nature. He gives a straight-forward explanation of some of the considerations involved in lion ecology and hunting. One of these considerations is the need to understand the social organization and group dynamics of lions. For instance, Macdonald explained how the death of one male lion will affect the social organization of that lion’s group and in turn the local population. Male lions are part of coalitions of other males that defend a territory, and when a male lion dies (whether hunted or from any number of factors), a “larger, stronger coalition comes in and usurps them, often leading to the death of the surviving brothers. The incoming males will generally kill the cubs of the incumbents”. This means that the death of one male lion may lead to the death of others, and the protection of one male lion may impact the population more broadly. Macdonald also explained that the hunt can certainly be conducted sustainably.

To put this in perspective, this analysis is nothing new to wildlife managers; it’s the backbone of harvest management policies all over the world. This is why harvests of any species are monitored and controlled, because a study of ecology tells us how the rest of a population will be affected by the death of individuals of each sex. For example, in Ontario, the whitetail deer population in the province is managed by controlling the number of females (does) that are killed each fall in the hunt. Killing male deer (bucks) generally does not have long-term effects on the overall deer population. Therefore, like any harvest management system, the sustainability of lion hunting requires an understanding of the biology and ecology of lions and effective enforcement.

A number of media stories have used the kind of generalizing and value-laden language to tell this story that casts it in a particular ethical light right out of the gate. One of the things these stories have focused on is that the hunter, Walter Palmer, allegedly paid upwards of $50 000 for this hunt. This introduces the social and economic complexity of this issue, and illustrates that there’s so much going on here that it really is difficult to categorize it as simply right or wrong (and in fact, anyone who tries to make that simple categorization has clearly not done enough research). The high costs of wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe is paid for through managed hunting opportunities, including lion hunting.

I’ve mentioned the costs involved in wildlife management, including years of research to understand the necessary parameters needed to make informed decisions about the species in question, through to the administration of the policies that are eventually enacted. In the case of lion hunting in Zimbabwe (and other regions), the money generated from hunting is absolutely crucial for conservation policies. In fact, many wildlife and habitat conservation activities simply would not be possible without this money.

It’s important to remember that there are local human communities involved in this story, and they cannot be separated from a realistic discussion of options for effective wildlife management. Many of these local communities rely on livestock and other forms of agriculture, and lions present a very real threat to their livelihood through risks of predation (a concern for farmers all over the world). This means that local communities are going to need to kill lions to protect livestock and prevent loss of income, and these kills are not controlled by a harvest management program; in other words, communities can kill as many lions as they need for their safety.

Given the combination of these factors, one of the most effective, available, and economically feasible ways to protect wildlife in regions like Zimbabwe (like it or not) is to attribute value animals through hunting. If a single lion is given a specific monetary value, and local communities know they can count on benefitting from this money, it makes the risk of living with lions acceptable and financially viable. This is just the way our global economy works: if we want to protect something, it is assigned value. I won’t say I agree with it in all cases, but it’s what we’ve got to work with right now, and unfortunately it’s just the reality that arguing for the inherent value of the life of an animal doesn’t protect the income of local communities directly threatened by them.

With this in mind, does it really make it somehow worse that Walter Palmer paid over $50 000 to kill a lion? In this context, it really isn’t the amount of money that he paid that people have a problem with; it’s coming to terms with the fact that there is essentially a price tag on a lion. We just need to deal with that fact. I would personally rather see increased benefit to local communities and lion management programs through these kinds of high costs. It also limits the number of people who can afford go lion hunting, which effectively helps control the hunt. The price tag on lion hunting needs to make the protection of lions economically viable and socially acceptable. It is what it is.

The alternative to this method was played out in Botswana in 2000. In this TEDx talk, Mikkel Legarth explains how the implementation of a ban on lion hunting resulted in more lions being killed in defense of property and life, and led to a reduction in the lion subpopulation. These same population declines were also observed in Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia following bans on lion hunting. Recently, researchers in Zambia suggested a continuation of the 2013 ban on lion hunting until 2016, which they believe will help in the recovery of lion populations. Again, wildlife management policies need to be designed based on the specific geographic context and informed by rigorous research.

So you see that this is an ecologically, socially, politically, and economically complex situation, and no amount of wishing it was a simple matter of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong will change that. I’ve only scratched the surface here of the full picture of the historical context that has contributed to the current circumstances around the lion hunt in Zimbabwe. There is a long history of global politics and economics relevant to this story that I didn’t get into here. I think the point is that we can all have our own opinions and feelings about hunting, lions, lion hunting, different methods or approaches to hunting, and all the other particular issues that arise through this story. At the end of the day, though, we work within the reality in which we live, and the tools available for wildlife management are constrained by that same reality.

So the real task before us is not to reach agreement on all of our personal opinions and ethics. Instead, we need to agree on an action that will allow us to move forward in making a decision to help us achieve our shared goals, hunters and non-hunters alike: the long-term sustainability of wildlife and the habitat on which they depend.

Cecil: Part 2: Are we all in it together?

You don’t have to look very far these days to find evidence of a tendency towards a polarized and often homogenizing representation of hunting. In the last few days, there have been blanket statements throughout various media that present assumptions, generalizations, and stereotypes as truth about hunting in general. I’ve also seen hunters come forward with proclamations about the enduring honour of hunting as a tradition that is defined and given meaning by its most respectable proponents. Let me say at the outset to those who are engaged in these oversimplifications of hunting: it is wrong to do this. There are a host of social, cultural, and political reasons for this tendency to generalization about hunting, but for many of us, I think there’s an important question surrounding how we handle it when we find ourselves in a situation where we feel as though we need to proudly protect a tradition that we believe in while at the same time needing to consider how our own personal ethics position us in relation to a particular set of events that directly involve hunting.

I think a question faced at some point by most hunters comes down to this: do we need to stand together as a community to protect hunting regardless of our individual approaches, or do we take an ethical stance on particular issues and risk the potential political consequences to hunting of the internal division that may result?

When Cecil the lion (Panthera leo) was killed in Zimbabwe last month, hunters found themselves in this predicament once again. Lions are killed all the time, and many hunters out there probably felt like there was no need for intense discussion about this. I think this story highlights an ongoing important discussion to be had. The details of this particular case created strong reactions in the media and among various social groups, and hunters found themselves in positions where they needed to respond. Canadian hunters The Beasley Brothers, hosts of the show Canada in the Rough, commented that “there is turmoil in the hunting world!” Other well-known hunting personalities, such as Donnie Vincent and Cameron Hanes released responses to the story, indicating that among hunters, there is a perception that when an individual hunter does something legally or ethically questionable, hunting in general is at risk of attack – we talk about the world of hunting being in turmoil, rather than strictly the world of one individual. My own anecdotal experience tells me this too: hunters I know became immediately concerned about how anti-hunters would use the example of Cecil to further their cases, and how this story would reflect on all hunters and on the inherent morality of hunting.

I was expressing this concern to a non-hunting friend of mine, and he was surprised to hear that hunters feel this way, that there was a perception among us that we would all be painted with the same brush. His perspective was that as someone who is not anti-hunting, but who does have certain ethical positions on hunting, he has no problem separating the actions of one from the actions of the many. Further, he saw this as a positive opportunity for other hunters to strengthen their social image through self-reflection and a thoughtful critical analysis of the story. This surprised me and left me questioning whether the world really is applying the actions of individual hunters to all of us or whether we are unnecessarily on the defensive.

On the other hand, anti-hunting advocacy and media is strong, and there are ongoing efforts to limit hunting opportunities and propagate a negative image of hunting. Politically, this takes the form of tightened firearms legislation and efforts to change land policies to prevent hunting. Socially, we see hunters presented on an ideological binary with environmentalists, animal rights activists, and other identity politics groups, and the reinforcement of broad stereotypes and assumptions about hunters.

This situation makes it difficult to predict whether we will strengthen our social and political position by presenting a united front against these forces, or whether we are better off claiming particular ethical niches and taking the risk that we will end up engaged in debates amongst ourselves, taking energy away from advocating for the activity in principle and protecting our legal ability to pursue it. In the first option, there is political strength in numbers, without a doubt. On the other hand, I think it`s important that we all develop our own hunting ethics, and stand firm on these – difficult at times as it may be – because it gives us a sense of certainty that no matter what else happens, we have been honourable, responsible, and respectful hunters.

Some people talk about “ethical hunting” as though it is a universally agreed upon set of prescriptive actions, and people are divided along a clearly identifiable line, defined as either an ethical hunter or an unethical hunter. In reality, your hunting ethics are determined by a combination of considerations that eventually lead to a set of principles guiding how you think about hunting and the strategies and actions you are willing and unwilling to do while in the field. For some, the law is their ethical yardstick, meaning that if something is legal, is it ethical. Others focus more on individually developed standards of what they think is acceptable.  As such, we need to remember that hunting ethics change, however slightly, from person to person and are influenced by various criteria and experiences.

Having said this, there is no shortage of the promotion of this thing called ethical hunting. There are a number of organizations dedicated to promoting ethical hunting, and they have developed some general definitions and guidelines. The Boone and Crockett Club’s Fair Chase Statement outlines six principles for ethical hunting that highlight the importance of a personal code of conduct and behaviour that upholds the honour of the animal being hunted, the environment in which it lives, and maintains the relationship between the hunter and the animal. Orion, The Hunter’s Institute points to the need for hunters to “recognize that education, debate, and thoughtful examination are critical components of developing one’s understanding of his or her hunting ethic”. So hunters are having these deeper discussions on emotional and intellectual levels, and it’s nothing new. The Ontario Hunter Education Program, the official course that all new hunters are required to attend in Ontario, which entails a 70 question test, includes a whole unit on ethical hunting. The Boone and Crockett Club has been having these conversations since it was founded in 1887.

One thing that these types of guidelines perhaps don’t fully account for are the wide-ranging social and economic realities of certain hunting situations (although the Boone and Crockett Club’s statement does reinforce the need to respect local customs). For example, the current circumstances around lion hunting and environmental conservation in a number of African countries have been shaped by global political and economic institutions. It is a complex matter that I discuss more in Part 3 of these discussions on Cecil, but it is important to remember that our personal hunting ethics are (and should be) compounded by complex and changing circumstances that are global in nature.

Again, I think it’s important to be clear about the lens through which I examine the story involving Cecil the lion and the personal biases I bring to the table. For me, this comes back to what I mentioned in my previous post about the need to embrace paradox. Ethical hunting, in my world, means upholding a sense of gratitude and respect in the relationship between the hunter and the animal, and understanding both of their places in the landscape. Vague, yes. Generally speaking, for me, ethical hunting put in practice means eating the animal you’ve killed and conducting your hunt to contribute to conservation. I believe that there are ethical hunts that do not involve eating the animal, because in these cases, there is a distinct ecological role that hunting fulfills. For example, it’s probably very rare that a hunter eats a coyote, but I think the hunt can serve a specific ecological purpose. I also believe that the lion hunt (as an industry) can be ethical practice because it can contribute to conservation. I think the nature of personal ethics is such that an issue can`t always fit neatly into categories of right and wrong, but rather requires constant evaluation and practice.

I like to use examples provided by other people to illustrate my points. It takes some of the onus off me to make sense. In this talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Steven Rinella discusses the important relationship between hunting and conservation and touches on the difficulty in categorizing the concept of “trophy hunting” on the spectrum of ethics, but he still takes a clear position on the essence of the issue. Take a look at about the 6:05 mark in this video to hear his thoughts.

The example of lion hunting, and other analogous cases, present complex circumstances and require equally complex consideration and reflection. I think much of the public reaction has been to a set of ideas which are symbolized by “Cecil the lion”, rather than the specific details of the story. Firstly, particular animals have specific meanings in different cultures, and this impacts the nature of our relationships with them. In this case, I think responses have been emotionally charged because it was not just a lion that was killed, but a social and cultural icon; this individual lion was never going to be presented in a strictly biological way. Secondly, I think a lot of the media and public are reacting to the idea of trophy hunting and its connotations, rather than the complex social and political realities of the lion hunting industry. As such, the various ethical responses and condemnations that have emerged are partially a result of the meaning given to this story by cultural norms.

Our responses to these sorts of issues require rigorous and nuanced ethical reflections with careful attention to the specificities of the stories, and we need to engage in these discussions so we can sort out our individual and collective understandings. Some might say that this is too tall of an order for the average person, particularly the average hunter who just wants to hunt, not deconstruct everything about what they do; however, I don’t think this gives hunters due credit. I think there is a large and growing contingent of hunters who want to engage with complex intellectual discussions about what we do, and I take great pride in being part of that community. For a great example of one of these discussions, check out this podcast.

The stereotype of the idiot, bubba hunter is a fading concept. To those hunters out there clinging to an idea of themselves as impervious to the need for critical reflection, it’s time to catch up. But to be honest, I know very few people who I might classify in this group, and I think it’s time we begin to associate hunters with thoughtful intellectuals just as much as we associate them with strong sportsmen and women. Interestingly, I have yet to hear any hunters I know or follow unequivocally defend the actions of Walter Palmer and his hunting guides. I’ve heard both complete dismissal of these three individuals as representatives of hunters at large, and I’ve heard more gentle comments about particular actions they took, but in all cases, hunters are thinking deeply about these issues.

Where does this leave me? My response to where I position myself in relation to the three individuals involved in this case is fairly simple. In the question about whether we are all in it together, I think the answer is no.

While I have not spoken to Walter Palmer or his guides and therefore cannot know with absolute certainty their intentions or what they knew about the circumstances (and no matter what anyone thinks, if you aren’t them, you can’t know), I have an ethical problem with the way that it appears this hunt was conducted. Now, if it had turned out that everything was legal, although my own personal ethics diverge from this type of hunting, I accept it; however, given what we think we know, if even one law was broken here, I cannot accept it as hunting. Hunting is a tradition and a way of life that is defined by honour and respect, and I don’t see those values upheld in this story (as the details have so far been presented). I see wasted meat, dishonesty, and disrespect to the individual animal, the species, and the landscape of which it is a part. So I don’t stand with individuals like that, and I don’t support them.

Instead, I take pride in embracing the opportunity for honest, critical self-reflection about my own ethical code. I’m happy to take the risk of making a statement and taking a stand on an issue, because I believe it will strengthen hunting as a way of life. If I change my mind in the future based on new knowledge and experiences, then I will be open about that and embrace it. I believe we need to act thoughtfully on the knowledge we have and understand how we reconcile it with our own ethics and what we want to build for the future of hunting, and I’m in it with others who want to do this.

I’ll leave off with a note to non-hunters out there who are giving their opinions about hunters and hunting: please take the time to have these conversations with us; don’t jump to conclusions; don’t act on assumptions; be honest in your dialogue with hunters and in your knowledge about hunting; if you don’t know from personal experience, take the time to learn; this is your responsibility too.