When an American trophy hunter killed Cecil the Lion, a protected animal in an African game preserve, the internet was packed with Tweets and Facebook diatribes condemning the man who did it and big game hunting in general. Why are we so concerned about one animal when there are millions of them killed around the world every year? Is there a good reason to shoot large game for sport, or is it always wrong? We talk to several wildlife specialists about the Cecil incident, find out how this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to hunting and poaching wild animals, and hear about the good things that controlled and monitored trophy hunting can provide.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Dr. Samuel Richards, a senior lecturer in sociology at Penn State University; Keith Norris, director of government affairs & partnerships at the Wildlife Society; Mike Hoffmann, senior scientist for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Species Survival Commission, IUCN.

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Hunting and Poaching Big Game: Is it every justified?

Gary Price: Before this month most of us hadn’t heard of Cecil the Lion. We all know him now since a dentist named Walter Palmer from Minnesota made Cecil an Internet must-see when he shot and killed the beloved Zimbabwean animal. The barbaric death of Cecil and the media attention angered many Americans who demanded the arrest of Palmer and those responsible. Justice for Cecil is critical, but what about the bigger picture? How does trophy hunting impact animal populations? And why do we care so much about the death of this lion?

Dr. Samuel Richards: To be honest, it’s really about the fact that this lion had a name that just took it to the media. He didn’t kill the lion, right? He killed X lion, right? I name my dogs. We name our dogs; we name our cat. That matters.

Price: That’s Dr. Samuel Richards, a senior lecturer in sociology at Penn State University. He says that what we can or cannot hunt is often a matter of perspective.

Richards: We don’t seem to have a problem with the animals that we’ve deemed acceptable to eat and then we factory farm them and we torture them and we do all sorts of horrible things to them. That we deny and we don’t see, we don’t take notice. But what we consider to be free wild animals, I think there’s an inherent disinclination toward killing them. And in the case of this lion, we had named him by researchers. And that meant he was more than just a wild lion by naming him, in people’s consciousness, he was a domesticated lion. And I think people responded to that. Thirty thousand elephants are killed every year in Africa, horrifically. There’s an interesting article coming out in National Geographic about this, the slaughter of elephants for ivory, nothing more. They kill the elephants, they cut the tusks off and they walk away with the ivory and the elephant, the body decomposes. What about the rest of us who don’t stand up and try to stop that? What’s that say about us? So it’s really easy to point our fingers at somebody like this dentist, but when we point one finger at somebody else there’s three pointing back at us.

Price: Cecil – a 13-year-old dominant male – was part of a research study by the University of Oxford and lived in a protected national park. The day before his death, Cecil was lured out of the sanctuary with bait. The lion was then wounded by Walter Palmer with an initial arrow. The next morning, he came back to finish the job and then proceeded to skin and behead the dead lion. The killing of Cecil was pure entertainment for Palmer. Right after, he asked if he could hunt an elephant but, luckily, he couldn’t find one big enough. Keith Norris, director of government affairs & partnerships at The Wildlife Society, says despite the sport having a bad rep, it’s a part of American culture.

Keith Norris:    I think hunting is a very important part of some of the cultural and traditional values in the United States and in North America, more generally. Hunting has been a big part of our culture since the country was founded, and is a big part of some of the traditions, particularly in rural America, and really provides a lot of societal and cultural values through those traditions, whether they be with families or friends in different hunting pursuits really build up those traditions and those traditional values.

Price: The way Palmer killed Cecil is not representative of this culture. Rather than using his weapon to kill the lion mercifully, Palmer chose to maim the animal and let it suffer overnight. Mike Hoffmann, senior scientist for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, Species Survival Commission, says hunters use a variety of weapons based on preference.

Mike Hoffman: The nature of the kill is usually with a high-powered or high-caliber rifle that’s invariably the way that such species are killed. Of course there’s the increasing use of compound bows and the rest of the things to try to make it more of a challenge.

Price: Hoffmann says that while trophy hunting is part of the problem, there are a number of other threats plaguing the species.

Hoffmann: In reality, if you look at lions as a species as a whole, they’re globally threatened and listed as vulnerable on the Red List, they’ve undergone a steep decline in the last 20 years. And trophy hunting has almost assuredly played a role in that decline. But it’s only been one of a number of factors that has contributed. Habitat loss has been, without a doubt, a big player in that. We know that there are lots of examples of human-wildlife conflict where lions come into conflict with neighboring pastoralists raising cattle and livestock and that sort of thing. We know that there’s lots of persecution that takes place of lions as a result of that, in fact that’s probably been one of the main drivers of lion populations in Western Africa. And, of course, across much of the continent their pay base has been dramatically depleted through other forms of hunting and bush meat hunting, and that sort of things. So it’s important to always put any threat in context because it’s very seldom that at single threat is necessarily a single, major driving cause of a decline in a species like this.

Price: Aside from lions, Hoffmann says trophy hunting can benefit species and local economies if properly regulated. Many of Africa’s national and provincial parks are mainly supported by the revenue brought in by trophy hunting.

Hoffmann: There’s a good example in Pakistan of a long-term, long-running program that has been combatted, it’s called the Tagore Conservation Program which has actually led to improvements in the status of a species of (mountain goat) called the Markhor and seen a turnaround in the population size of that species and generates significant revenues – upwards of 80% of revenues for local communities. On the other hand, there are also examples where trophy hunting, unfortunately, has not been very good for species. So of course the species that’s been capturing everybody’s imagination and attention in the last couple of weeks is lions. There’s a study that’s been published in Tanzania where they found that over a period of time during the 2000s the lion population had been impacted as a result of trophy hunting. So, unfortunately, the reality is that there are cases where it can have a demonstrable positive impact for the species that are being targeted, but of course it goes without saying that it can have very negative impact for the species that gets targeted.

Price: Dwindling lion populations have led to less lion hunts due to increased bans and restrictions on hunting in many African countries. However, other practices like poaching still run rampant and have an enormous impact on the survival of species.

Hoffmann: When it comes to poaching for bush meat trade and for illegal wildlife, it’s a very different situation. So a lot of bush meat hunting in Africa employs the use of various techniques. So, on the one hand, it can be low-tech, if you like, involving the use of snares where those snares are manufactured using a wide variety of materials and, of course, they’re just placed on game trails and it’s very, sort of non-species specific. The idea is just to sort of catch whatever sort of happens to be walking across a game trail.

Price: Once an animal is captured or killed, it’s shipped abroad where it is sold at a high price. For the poaching industry, this demand continues to thrive.

Hoffmann: This is taking place through very sophisticated crime syndicates. Animals being poached with automatic weapons, very, very organized criminal networks, then materials being smuggled out through networks overseas to countries like China and Vietnam and so forth for various purposes.

Price: Hoffman says that in order to stop the killing of animals, conservation groups and people need to acknowledge important successes and avoid the doomsday attitude.

Hoffmann: It’s important to actually ask the question, well, what would the situation look like if all of these conservation organizations who were working in these places, in these countries, doing all the things that they’re doing, monitoring trade, doing enforcement on the ground, anti-poaching patrols, everything, what would the situation look like if they weren’t doing those things at all? And in studies, and in work that we’ve done to try and tease that out and to try and understand that, we’ve shown actually that the impact of those conservation efforts are considerable. It’s not to say that we’re doing a perfect job because, of course, we shouldn’t get complacent about the fact that these animals are declining and that population trends are not in the trajectory that they should be. But it’s just to say that we are making a difference and we are making an impact. But of course, we need to be doing much, much more: we do need to be ramping up our efforts; we do need to be (communicating) the work that we’re doing harder, certainly. And of course that’s where the public and many others can have an important role in helping these various organizations to do the important work that they’re doing.

Price: The nonstop media coverage following the death of Cecil the Lion have made some Americans question what exactly is newsworthy these days. However, without this attention, those responsible may have never faced the consequences or the shame of killing a protected animal. It has evoked outrage, exposed cruel and illegal hunting practices, and, most importantly, started a discussion on the species that need our help. You can read more about the IUCN on their website at iucn.org. To find out about Samuel Richards’ work at Penn State University, visit their website at psu.edu. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on i-Tunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.