Cecil's death is not an anomaly, but rather part of an all-too-common trend that is contributing to the decline of lion populations: trophy hunting. In the face of such hunting -- and other significant threats including habitat loss, and retaliatory killings -- African lion populations have declined by 60% over the past 30 years. As few as 32,000 lions remain in the wild today
, and some scientists say the number could be much lower. With such rapidly dwindling numbers, individual lions like Cecil matter.
Cecil's case is especially devastating given his status as the dominant male of his pride: With the complex social structure of lion prides, the damage can be compounded since Cecil can no longer protect his pride from rogue lions and other threats. Consequently, other males, young cubs, and females are placed in danger and could very well be killed themselves now that the pride structure has been destabilized.
As barbaric as this hunter's actions appear to have been, he has plenty of company. Wealthy thrill-seekers kill approximately 600 lions every year
on trophy hunts. Unfortunately, Americans are primarily to blame: Over half of all lions killed for sport in Africa are shipped to the U.S. as trophies.
Sadly, lions aren't the only imperiled species hunted for sport. Americans continue to kill rhinos, leopards, elephants, polar bears, giraffes, leopards and a variety of other animals for gruesome mementos, collecting heads as if they were merit badges. Perhaps the most perverse part about this is that the rarer and more endangered these species become, the more valuable they are to trophy hunters, as evidenced by the $50,000 price tag of this hunt and the even more egregious $350,000 permit auctioned off earlier this year
by a member of the Dallas Safari Club to kill a critically endangered Namibian black rhino.
There exists a twisted logic that justifies these hunts as "conservation" efforts. Some claim that by paying for the right to kill a rare animal, the proceeds can go toward conservation efforts and thereby the kills are really in the name of conservation. Yet a number of studies have found that as little as 3 to 5% of revenues from trophy hunting operations are shared with local communities. And even if some of the money from these one-off kills eventually goes toward local people, it pales in comparison to the long term renewable revenue brought in by ethical wildlife watching and photography safaris, which bring billions of dollars in income to Africa.
Some countries, such as Kenya, have banned trophy hunting and seen the rise in ecotourism -- a sustainable industry that allows wildlife to be appreciated over and over. And other countries like Botswana have begun to rethink their trophy hunting policies.
Killing an imperiled animal to save it is nonsensical, morally wrong, economically harmful in the long-term, and disastrous from a biodiversity perspective. It is time we realized that animals' true value is when they are free to roam in the wild -- not killed for a hunter's mantle. Cecil the Lion attracted significant and sustained tourism in Zimbabwe and became a beloved local personality -- only to be brought down by a single trophy hunter. And he was only one of hundreds that die this way needlessly every year, alongside sport-hunted elephants, leopards, rhinos and other imperiled species.
If this tragedy has a silver lining, it's that the world is finally paying attention to the plight of these majestic creatures being needlessly killed. We can only hope that it's not too little, too late.