I never met Cecil, but I won't forget the lesson of the lion I did meet in Africa

Story highlights

  • The U.S. military plays no direct role in training African forces to hunt poachers, but many U.S. military officers wonder if they can help
  • Wildlife protection is now moving towards being a security issue far beyond what was imagined

Washington (CNN)That morning in camp, our safari guides were abuzz. The Moremi Wildlife Reserve is one of the most highly protected areas in Botswana's magnificent Okavango Delta. Word was spreading rapidly among the highly trained guides and park rangers that there was a rogue lion in the park. Our group jumped into our off-road vehicles and went in search.

It was the holiday of a lifetime this past spring: Almost three weeks in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, traveling much of the way by bush plane right into the heart of where some of Africa's most endangered species live.
The delta is a UNESCO World Heritage site, where big game roam in a protected environment and we are visitors in their world.
    When traveling in open vehicles, the first rule is that when you come across animals like lions, elephants and buffalo, stay still and quiet. It's their world and the humans are just passing through.
    As our guide said, "Please don't scream if an animal approaches you. You will upset them!"
    After a while, we came across the lion. But the sight that confronted us even shocked the guides.
    A huge male lion was lying stretched out in the bush beside his kill. The stench was overwhelming, the birds overhead waiting to swoop in.
    The kill was clearly a few days old, almost picked clean, but the lion was unwilling to give up his prize.
    That prize was another male lion.
    The two had gotten into a fight and the surviving lion had just eaten his opponent. The guides were totally taken aback. They told us it was lion behavior they had never seen.
    And now, the Moremi Wildlife Reserve rangers who control the reserve were going to have to track the lion for days and decide whether to kill him. They couldn't have a lion roaming around who might keep attacking other protected lions in the reserve.
    It was a harsh welcome to the world of responsible wildlife management and hunting in Africa. The death of the lion known as Cecil at the hands of an American hunter this month has taken on worldwide notoriety. It raises issues of whether African wildlife can be responsibly hunted down and killed. Is the money hunting brings to Africa enough of a reason? Does that money really help in the long run with responsible wildlife management?
    Tough questions, because even tourist dollars like mine play a role. In another part of the delta, we visited a group of semi-habituated elephants as part of our tour. Money was paid to do that.
    The prize for us was the unforgettable experience of being able to walk alongside the elephants in the bush through the large areas they roam each day. The money paid keeps the elephants, who cannot be returned to the wild, safe, well-fed and in the hands of their devoted keepers.
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    But a few days later in Zambia, I declined to visit another site where tourists can "pet" lions and other big cats that are kept in an enclosure. We were told the money goes to wildlife protection and awareness, but I was doubtful.
    Instead, we met up with a small group of Zambian security troops out in the bush. They live in the open with three rhinos, just a handful of an endangered group that Zambia is trying to protect. Does showing this effort to us help bring in more Western tourist dollars? Absolutely yes. But the rhinos roam free as the Zambians armed with their Ak-47s follow behind protecting them from poachers and "hunters."
    Now the world is questioning some of these practices and looking to counter them.
    The U.S. military plays no direct role in training African forces to hunt down poachers, but many U.S. military officers I've spoken to have told me it's something they are watching closely, wondering if there is a way they can help.
    Stopping illicit killing on the wildlife battlefield requires the same set of tracking and intelligence-gathering skills U.S. troops already possess.
    Many Africans are trying to preserve wildlife heritage against the overwhelming odds. Even the legal business of big game hunting for sport causes worry.
    Google "hunting" and "Trump" and you will find photos of Donald Trump's sons hunting exotic animals. There is no indication they violated any laws. But this type of activity has a price in the long run.
    This week, a northern white rhinoceros died in a Czech zoo of illness. There are now only four left in the world and the only male is too old to breed. Soon they will all be gone.
    On his trip to Africa, President Barack Obama announced a ban on all ivory trade, a key step forward because many countries are attempting to renew the ivory trade.
    Will Travers, president of the Born Free Foundation, has watched the illicit world of poaching since he was a child. His parents -- Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna -- starred in the iconic 1964 film "Born Free," and Will has carried on their work for decades in African wildlife protection.
    The foundation issued a report that should convince everyone wildlife protection is now moving towards being a security issue far beyond what we imagined.
    Some of the report's conclusions, quoting directly:
    • From Sudan, government-allied militias complicit in the Darfur genocide fund their operations by poaching elephants hundreds of miles outside North Sudan's borders.
    • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, state security forces patronize the very rebels they are supposed to fight, providing them with weapons and support in exchange for ivory.
    • Zimbabwean political elites, including those under international sanction, are seizing wildlife spaces that either are, or are likely to soon be, used as covers for poaching operations.
    • In East Africa, al-Shabaab and Somali criminal networks are profiting off of Kenyan elephants killed by poachers using weapons leaked from local security forces.
    • Mozambican organized crime has militarized and consolidated to the extent that it is willing to battle the South African army and well-trained ranger forces for rhino horn.
    • In Gabon and the Republic of Congo, ill-regulated forest exploitation is bringing East Asian migrant laborers, and East Asian organized crime, into contact with Central Africa's last elephants.
    • In Tanzania, political elites have aided the industrial-scale depletion of East Africa's largest elephant population.
    It is now estimated by authorities that 96 elephants a day are killed in Africa. On the banks of Chobe River we sat quietly and watched more than 60 elephants, females and their babies, go about their day, feeding, playing in the water, the little ones carefully guarded by their mothers.
    I don't know what happened to the lion I met. But I do hope the little baby elephant I watched struggle happily to learn to use his trunk will grow to an ancient age, walking the paths of Africa, showing us the wonders of a species other than our own.