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.

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