For 12 years, Cecil the lion lived a free and peaceful life, roaming the grounds of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.
But on July 1 the beloved lion – considered by many Zimbabweans as a ‘mascot’ and ‘star attraction’ of the infamous national park – was tragically shot dead by three hunters.
It was later revealed that one of the cruel and callous hunters was American dentist Walter J. Palmer (above left), who had allegedly paid up to $54,000 USD to hunt and kill Cecil.
Dr Palmer and his fellow hunters have since been inundated with abuse on social media and online news sites, with many calling for the trio to be sentenced to life imprisonment or even death.
The incident has prompted calls for governments to enact tougher laws and penalties to deal with those who hunt and kill endangered animals for leisure.
Was Cecil’s Killing Illegal?
While animal lovers around the world have expressed their outrage at the hunters’ actions, Dr Palmer has attempted to deflect the blame, saying that he had hired professional guides and obtained the proper permits.
A statement issued by the dentist reads:
“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
Despite this, Palmer and his two guides face possible legal action in Zimbabwe.
It is alleged that they lured Cecil out of the national park in order to avoid laws which prohibit animals from being killed within the park.
They then shot him with a crossbow and arrow, leaving him to slowly die over 40 hours – before removing his collar and beheading and skinning him.
One of Dr Palmer’s accomplices, a professional hunter by the name of Theo Bronkhurst, has already been criminally charged for ‘failing to prevent an unlawful killing.’ He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is due to begin on August 5.
The other man involved in the hunt, a farm owner named Honest Ndlovu, is also due to appear in court at a later date. Both men face a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment if found guilty.
While Dr Palmer denies being contacted by authorities as yet, there is a strong possibility that he could also face criminal charges, after Zimbabwe National Parks released a statement saying:
“All persons implicated in this case are due to appear in court facing poaching charges. Both the professional hunter and land owner had no permit or quota to justify the off take of the lion and therefore are liable for the illegal hunt.”
The Great Debate
According to animal conservationists, poachers are to blame for dwindling animal populations around the globe.
But governments are hesitant to take action preventing trophy hunting because the profits they reap from the practice are so great. Commercial hunting groups charge the wealthy tens of thousands of dollars to track and kill some of the rarest animals in the world.
It is estimated that the hunting industry contributes over $200 million USD per year to African governments, who issue permits to hunting groups and impose heavy taxes on the practice.
These governments say that the money is spent on preserving and maintaining national parks – and, somewhat ironically, on wildlife conservation.
Surprisingly, some animal conservationists have endorsed animal hunting, calling it a ‘necessary evil’ which prevents land from being used for farming and other commercial endeavours which would further ‘accelerate the loss of wildlife.’
These people, however, tend to support “canned hunting,” which is where certain endangered animals are bred in captivity specifically for people to hunt on private land. In many African nations, the practice is entirely legal.
Those who attempt to rationalise the killing of endangered animals say that hunting drives the tourism industry, thereby generating income for people living in some of the most disadvantaged countries in the world.
They also argue that supporting canned hunting helps save animals born in the wild, by providing a legal outlet for hunters to get their fix.
But many argue that this logic is deeply flawed.
They question how anyone can justify the breeding of exotic and endangered animals simply so they can be helplessly shot by wealthy humans armed with a gun or crossbow? Such a pursuit, they say, is cruel, callous and heartless.
Those against canned hunting say that even if it generates money for wildlife parks and sanctuaries, the practice does little to stop the illegal poaching of wild animals by those too poor to afford the hefty fees associated with the practice.
For many poachers, hunting wild animals for their luxurious furs and other by-products is an easy way to make good money – and hunting laws are rarely a deterrent, as many government officials can be bribed into ignoring the practice.
What Should Be Done?
In the wake of the killing, animal lovers around the globe have called on governments to take a stronger stand against trophy killings.
One way in which this could occur would be to classify animals such as the African lion as endangered. While there are only an estimated 32,000 African lions left in the wild, they are not yet listed on the Endangered Species Act.
Many animal rights groups have also called on Western governments to take action. Wealthy trophy hunters often travel from developed countries to partake in the practice – and governments including the US allow hunters to bring trophy lions back home to be grotesquely stuffed and displayed.
By prohibiting that practice or listing lions as an endangered species, US residents would not be allowed to bring these carcasses home.
Others suggest that tougher penalties and stricter enforcement of hunting laws is needed, but these measures can be difficult to implement in countries where corruption and bribery are rife.
Whatever action is taken, the public outcry at Cecil’s killing shows that many support tougher measures against trophy hunters – and dwindling animal populations suggest that we need to act before it is too late to prevent rare species from become endangered, and even extinct.