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 1: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about

One of my hesitations with social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, even blogging) is the inherent difficulty in using these tools to discuss issues that are located in a large and complex grey area of social opinion and politics. However, increasingly, news websites seem to be showing Twitter responses as part of their coverage, so there’s no denying that these are important platforms for engaging with current issues. This does not mean that we need to simplify our discussions to a watered down understanding of an issue to make it more readable. Given that, my approach to this topic takes place in a number of parts, each focusing on a different facet of the story.

By now, most people have probably heard about the hunter who killed a lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil, resulting in extensive news coverage and an outpouring of social media attention. One of the problems I see happening with this story is that many people are approaching it from different angles and experiences, but they’re all trying to have the same conversation. This is very difficult to do, because when we think we’re talking about the same thing, but aren’t, or are talking about the same thing, but don’t think we are, it leads to misunderstanding and conflict.

We need to know what we’re talking about.

I want to be upfront about how my personal baggage informs my mental organization of this issue. To do this, I’ll outline the range of more nuanced issues that I think are at play here so that I can discuss them individually and with specificity. For me, here are the things I’m thinking about in relation to this story:

  1. The effect of media representation and language on public perceptions;
  2. The decision about whether, as hunters, to defend or ostracize;
  3. The concern among hunters that stories like this puts all hunters in the same category;
  4. The importance of knowing the scientific facts about the animal and its ecology;
  5. The need to understand the politics and economics of conservation.

So these five sub-topics are really the ones that are the most important for me in this issue, and indeed in many other stories in the media involving hunting. I think it’s hard for me to talk about this without partially compartmentalizing each of these considerations and focusing on them somewhat individually. This is not to say that there aren’t other important issues, or even that these points are arranged in a hierarchy of importance. My opinion on this story is also informed by a combination of each of these more specific issues; this is just how I organize my thoughts.

One of the most important things for me in discussing an issue like this one is having the willingness and ability to embrace what people might perceive as paradox: to be able to say that I think what Walter Palmer and his hunting guides did was wrong, but that I still defend hunting; that I really have no personal interest in hunting a lion, but that I do not disagree with lion hunting; that killing this individual lion might have been wrong for sociocultural reasons, but that I understand the ecology of the species enough to know that it wasn’t necessarily wrong on a biological level; and that even if I disagree with the way certain people hunts, I am ok with it as long as it is legal. In other words, it’s possible to have multiple opinions about different aspects of an issue.

I’ll discuss this issue in three parts: Part 1 will focus on the first point; Part 2 will address points 2 & 3; and Part 3 will address points 4 & 5.

Part 1:
The way media and language frame this issue has a profound effect on how people perceive and talk about it.

Subconscious perceptions informed by value-laden language ultimately have tremendous consequences for how meaningfully I can have discussions with people about my other four points.

I’ll say that so far, I have mixed feelings about the way media has covered the story. I’m not a media analyst; I have no professional training in this, only my own perceptions and reactions to the language used in the media. This is also not a systematic selection of media, just a couple examples to illustrate my point.

The first coverage I saw about this was a CBC article that covered Jimmy Kimmel’s reaction to the killing of ‘Cecil the lion’. Now,  right up front, we need to recognize that the very fact that this lion had a name imbues the whole story with a sociocultural importance that would likely not be present if the lion were presented as a nameless, wild, apex predator, living in a wild habitat, doing wild things. A discussion of the effects of anthropomorphizing animals is out of my scope here, but these analyses exist, and suffice to say that giving the lion a name changes its significance for the general public. I’m not commenting on whether this is right or wrong; I’m only recognizing that it changes the nature of the issue. Would we still care about lions as a species? Yes. Would we feel the same personal attachment to the individual lion? Probably not.

Framing of Hunters as People:
Right from the outset, CBC describes the hunter as someone “who hunts big game for sport”. This is a loaded statement. I hunt big game, and consider myself engaged in athletic endeavours when doing so. The use of the term “trophy hunter” has also been prevalent. Describing any hunter in this way leaves out a whole range of important points about, for example, what the person does with the meat, their financial contribution and dedication to conservation (granted, we know what Palmer did with the meat, but I’m speaking generally about the use of this language), and the ecological effects of removing certain individuals from wildlife populations. Both Jimmy Kimmel and Johnny Rodrigues, chairmen of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, make comments about hunters being sexually inadequate or simply as people “who’ve got an ego. They’re bored with their lives“. I can tell you, with complete certainty, that neither of these two things are issues for me. In any case, this kind of language presents such a strong value judgment on the motivations of hunters as a whole, not only Walter Palmer, that is simply not true or encompassing of the activity.

Perceptions of Hunting Ethics:
There also seems to be a large focus on the fact that Palmer used a crossbow to shoot the lion, as if that somehow makes it inherently unethical. Let’s remember that bows are capable of delivery tremendous amounts of energy to kill animals by hemorrhaging. This does not make them less effective than guns. Perhaps the particular shot that Palmer took was unsafe, unethical, and ineffective, but the language focusing on the fact that he used a crossbow is dangerous and misrepresentative of the effectiveness of bowhunting.

Simplifications of the Conservation Issue:
Multiple articles also highlight the fact that Palmer paid around $54 000 to kill the lion. This particular issue is more related to my fifth point above about the politics of conservation, and I’ll address this more comprehensively in another post; however, noting only the amount of money Palmer paid does not appropriately represent the full issue of paying large amounts of money for hunting opportunities. It’s an important point and has much more relevance than simply showing that he is an arrogant rich man, but this kind of language evokes emotional responses from people that are inevitably antagonistic to the idea of paying for killing, rather than the actual long-term effects of this system.

The Use of Euphemisms:
On the other side of the discussion, Kimmel tells Palmer to “Stop saying you took the Lion. You take Aspirin. You killed the lion”. I agree. He killed the lion. I always use the word kill, because I think we need to give things a name, not a euphemism. I also don’t think that what we do when we kill an animal is wrong, so I don’t mind using the word kill. I would rather honestly embrace the emotional response from the reality of what we do than try to shield others from it. I tend to agree with Kimmel here that if Palmer is attempting to soften the language he is using, it isn’t working. However, I would also caution against the association of killing with wrong that can sometimes be implied with statements like this.

Now, I’m not disputing the facts presented by these articles, and this particular post is not about my personal opinion on the story (I’ll get to that in the other posts about this). I only want to draw attention to the point that our choice of language has dramatic implications for how people react to and think about issues. When we discuss issues as controversial and far-reaching as this, and share strong opinions about them, we need to remember what we’re talking about and choose our words carefully. I think we need to be careful to speak only about the particular case we want to be talking about, and not imply truths about the broader issues involved.  If we’re not talking about hunters or hunting or lion conservation in general, then let’s not use language that conveys value judgments about those topics. Let’s present facts unencumbered by personal feelings about them and at the same time be aware of how our feelings and perceptions are informed by the language used to discuss an issue.