After Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer paid $50,000 to kill, skin, and behead Cecil, a protected African lion living in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, many around the world are asking: How could anyone let this happen? Cecil, who was well known and well loved at the park, was part of research being conducted by scientists from Oxford University. A proud, beautiful lion, Cecil was 14 years old and had six cubs, which researchers now say are in danger of being killed by a member of a rival pride. And as a picture of Palmer posing behind the body of a previously killed lion spread like wildfire, outrage has, too. Although Palmer, an experienced trophy hunter, said he deeply regrets his actions, many around the world feel that he should never have been allowed to kill a member of a vulnerable species in the first place. Now, the moral and legal circumstances of Palmer's kill and, more broadly, Zimbabwe's approach to hunting and conservation, are being closely examined.
African lions, or Panthera leo, as they are scientifically known, were listed as a vulnerable species in 1996 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. IUCN estimates that the lion population throughout Africa is less than 20,000. As of 2007, Hwange National Park, outside of which Palmer killed Cecil with a bow and arrow after luring him out of the protective space, was estimated to have just 402 lions, down from approximately 1,000 in 1998, according to LionAlert, a site that helps track the vulnerable species.
[Cecil] was lured out of a park that was there to protect him. Why would these guides or guide services need to do that if the practice of hunting is truly sustainable?
marcella leone, leo zoological conservation center
Although it was illegal for Palmer to shoot Cecil, the IUCN had said that allowing trophy hunting can lead to an increase in the Zimbabwean lion population. As hard as that may be to believe, the IUCN maintains that in Zimbabwe, killing some lions can help others survive. "Trophy hunting has a net positive impact in a few areas in Zimbabwe but may have contributed to population declines in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe," the IUCN reports. But conservationists around the world believe that the killing of lions needs to be rethought completely. LionAlert estimates that the world has lost 80% to 90% of its lion population since 1975. Marcella Leone runs the LEO Zoological Conservation Center in Greenwich, CT. Leone told Refinery29 that Cecil's death should force Zimbabwe to reexamine its laws. "This is about what the law was," Leone says. "And perhaps there’s also a bigger picture — this animal was lured out of a park that was there to protect him. Why would these guides or guide services need to do that if the practice of hunting is truly sustainable?"
the world has lost 80% to 90% of its lion population since 1975.
Figuring out what laws govern lion hunting — or trophy hunting, more generally — is an arduous process. Sites like LuxuryHunts.com advertise all-inclusive 10-day trophy-lion excursions for $49,000; African Sky Hunting prices a Trophy lion at $24,000, including tax, license, and permits. Leone says she has been looking into hunting regulations in Zimbabwe since she first heard about Cecil's death. She adds that her research has been similarly frustrating, though she has encountered nothing that leads her to believe that what happened to Cecil, the lion she calls a "beautiful, beloved animal celebrity," had any positive impact. "There are websites out there that are saying that he didn’t do anything wrong and it’s all legal. If it was legal, why is he hiding?" Leone says. "In this case, maybe Cecil’s tragedy will bring hope for a lot of other lions and wildlife."