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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cecil's Legacy

"The wild beast hunts, two a day for five days, are magnificent. There is no denying it. But what pleasure is there in seeing a puny human mangled by a powerful beast or a splendid animal killed with a hunting spear?"

- Cicero

Besides books on zoos and aquariums, I really enjoy books about animals in the wild, particularly ones about the scientists studying them in the field.  Jaguar, by Alan Rabinowitz, falls into this category, and there are many others along this line on my book shelf.  One of my all-time favorites is Cry of the Kalahari, by husband-and-wife naturalists Mark and Delia Owens.  The Owenses studied and lived among the lions, hyenas, and jackals of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, sometimes having the animals roam through their very campsite.  Among the special animals that they got to know was a lion that they christened "Bones."

Bones was near dead when the Owenses found him, with a broken leg and skinful of porcupine quills.  Throwing scientific detachment out the window, they darted the ailing lion, dressed his wounds, set his bones, and nursed him back to health, even going so far as to shoot some game for him so that he wouldn't hunt and stress his leg while it was trying to heal.  Bones eventually recovered fully and became the dominant male of a nearby pride, as well as one of the most special animals in the lives of Mark and Delia Owens.  When they recounted his tale to a pair of visiting American tourists and hunters, their guests were moved to tears by the beauty of the story.

A few days later, those same Americans (a husband and wife, just like the Owenses), shot a lion.  Care to guess who it was?

Few (if any) approaches to wildlife conservation are as controversial as the role of trophy hunting.  The idea of killing wild animals - especially those belonging to species which are in decline, maybe even threatened or endangered - is unsettling to many people.  I sympathize.  I feel the same way.  I became a zookeeper because I like animals.  Whenever I hear a visitor make a joke about turning one of our alligators into boots, or comparing our buck to the deer they've shot on hunting trips, I get irritable.  Why can't you just appreciate the animal?, I want to scream, Why does it have to be a trophy?

With that being said, I find myself surprisingly, for lack of better word, irritated at the outcry over Cecil, the Zimbabwe lion who was recently killed by an American trophy hunter in circumstances of dubious legality.  Not because I think that said hunter is anything other than an asshole - I have a hard time believing that he didn't know what he was doing was illegal, especially in light of the fact that he plead guilty to charges of poaching in the US previously.  I'm annoyed because so much of the fuss is from people who don't actually bother to understand the case, but just want to be outraged over something.

Lion hunting is legal in Zimbabwe - the problem here is that the animal (an individual who was popular with tourists) was lured out of a protected area, gut-wounded, and died after two days of agony.  If the lion (or a different one with less of a popular following) had been outside the protected area on his own and killed cleanly, there would have been no legal issue at all.  People would still have been angry about it... but only if they heard about it, which, since it would have been legal, they likely wouldn't have.

A big part of my irritation is that these things just snowball into rage storms on the internet, not actually doing anything productive other than letting us feel good about ourselves and make the issue about us.  "Oh, you're sad about Cecil?  Well I'm sadder.  Look at this petition I'm signing.  Look at this meme I'm posting.  Look at this nasty Yelp! review I'm giving the dentist who shot him.  Look at me, look at me, look at ME!"

It was like that black rhino hunt.  Remember that?  It was all over the news a few months ago?  Of course we don't, we all got distracted by something new.  And then, something else will happen and our collective rage will be switched over to that new cause, and Cecil will be forgotten as quickly as he he first appeared.

All of this ignores serious questions that need to be addressed.  Are we seriously going to discuss the role of trophy hunting in conservation?  Because if we are, we need to accept it's not as black or white as an online petition says it is.  On one hand, yes, you are killing otherwise healthy animals, animals that would be mating and making more animals, to say nothing of sending a questionable message to local people ("I, a rich American, can kill this lion.  You, a poor Zimbabwean, cannot").  On the other, sometimes attaching a monetary value to an animal is what is needed to save it.  When Pere David first saw his namesake deer, it survived in only once place on earth - the imperial hunting reserve in China.  Ecotourism can be used to raise money to protect wildlife and their habitats in a non-lethal manner, it is true - but that has drawbacks as well. Ecotourists generate less revenue per person than hunters do, and they tend to require more infrastructure - more hotels, more roads, more power and water usage - than a single hunter who is actually stalking quarry in the bush itself.

Also, how about we get our house in order, too?  Where the hell was all of this outrage as North Carolina plotted to pull the plug on the only wild population of red wolves left in the world?  Not that people even approach this level of concern for the plight of the grey wolves out west.  And oh, yeah, let's not forget that here in the US we have our own species of big cat, the jaguar, which is clinging to the borderlands by the tips of its claws.  And now we have presidential candidates who want to build a wall along the entire US-Mexican border, cutting jaguars, ocelots, and Mexican wolves off completely from a part of their range.

I dislike trophy hunting.  Whenever I see a gleeful idiot mugging a dead animal for the camera, I sigh and shake my head.  At least show some respect, I think, some appreciation for the magnificent life you just ended for fun.  But money for conservation has to come from somewhere, and there is a limited amount of ecotourism or grant money out there.  Eventually, countries and governments end up in competition for it.  I fear that as more countries ban trophy hunting of wildlife, that will just make it more valuable to the countries that do... and possibly encourage unethical practices like those we saw in this case.

If we, as a society, feel that trophy hunting is simply too repugnant to be allowed, then so be it.  We'll need to make sure that we're still finding ways to fund wildlife conservation.  I suppose I should be happy that Cecil's death at least is getting people to talk about lions and their conservation... but they aren't talking, their screeching.  As part of a profession that has to deal with the odd-bit of media screeching itself, I get exasperated.  If you want to truly honor Cecil and give him a legacy, you can do better than write a Yelp! review for a dentist who has never even seen your molars.

You can help start a conversation about making sure that large carnivores still have a place in our world for generations to come.  That would be a worthwhile legacy.

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