The recent killing of Cecil the lion created an unusually virulent outrage. As a television producer who has traveled to Africa over forty times to shoot our television series, Safari Hunter’s Journal for Sportsman Channel, I have a unique insight as to how this hunt ultimately went wrong and why so many are so upset about it. First, the facts:
A lion was shot and wounded on private property in Zimbabwe. It was lured from the adjacent National Park by bait(s) set out by the professional hunter’s staff. Hours after the initial shot, the lion was eventually dispatched, again on private property. There was no government-sanctioned quota for lion in the area, neither was a lion permit issued prior to the commencement of the hunt, ergo, this was an illegal hunt, i.e., poaching, and for this reason many are outraged, including myself, as well as other ethical hunters.
Another infraction occurred after the fact. The professional hunter, Theo Bronkhorst, failed to report the recovery of a tracking collar to the authorities. Adding his accountability for supervising an illegal hunt means Bronkhorst is looking at significant jail time. The landowner who failed to obtain the necessary permit, Honest Ndlovu, was detained but inexplicably not charged. The culpability of the client from Minnesota, Walter Palmer, is another question.
Returning from Zimbabwe, Walter Palmer became public enemy #1 of the social media lynch mob, but there are legitimate questions. If Mr. Palmer knew he was hunting without a permit, he is guilty of poaching and should suffer the consequences. However, if Palmer relied on the expertise of the professional hunter to whom he paid $55,000 to make proper arrangements, including insuring the licenses and permits were in order, and if he had no knowledge the landowner permit was missing, then he was duped and deserves our sympathy as the victim of a scam perpetrated by opportunists who prey upon foreign hunters willing to pay outrageous sums to hunt Africa’s big game.
I must confess: I empathize with Walter Palmer. For you see, but for the grace of God, there go I.
Sorting out big game hunting concessions, quotas, licenses, and bag limits in most African countries is a bureaucratic nightmare; all the more so for foreigners. Much like the homeowner hiring a contractor to make improvements relies on said contractor to pull the permits to bring the job into compliance, virtually every tourist hunter who makes the trip to Africa depends on their outfitter to do the paperwork to make the hunt a legal one. Having been a guest in well over one hundred safari operator’s camps over the past three decades, I have never felt the need to “check up” on my host to be sure all my paperwork was in order; that is until Cecil happened. Because of the tsunami of righteous indignation from the Piers Morgan’s and Ingrid Newkirk’s of the world, (who have both publicly called for the death of Walter Palmer) you can bet I will now research and inspect every form to be certain our future safaris comply with local rules.
But what troubles me about this controversy is not the extra due diligence, the guilt or innocence of Walter Palmer, nor the death of a single lion. What bothers me about this Cecil business is how so many well-intentioned people are now unwittingly advocating the abolition of the very thing that allows wildlife to survive in our seven-billion person world.
Sustainable use: it is the foundational principle of conservation. Be it the farmer holding back a portion of the harvest for next-years’ seed or the lumberman harvesting then replanting a section of forest, wildlife is a resource that can be used and sustained as well. One only needs to look at America's burgeoning whitetail deer population to see this truth. Be it deer, elk, impala, and yes, even lions, a properly-managed harvest of wildlife means sustainable populations in-perpetuity within bounds of the existing habitat.
Nevertheless, some people simply do not like hunting. I get that. But if you love and appreciate wildlife in its’ natural habitat, then you should thank a hunter for it, as he or she is the one paying the bills. In Africa, as in North America, most of the money spent for wildlife and habitat comes from hunters.
Sportsmen and women pay for wildlife; to the tune of three billion dollars in the US last year. This money generated from licenses, tags, and sales taxes on sporting equipment funds the fifty state wildlife conservation departments, creating funding for operations and a scientific treasure-trove of wildlife research and habitat restoration projects. The same is true in Africa. Each year, thousands of tourist hunters spend millions of dollars on safari, incentivizing landowners and governments to maintain habitat in its natural state and turning wildlife that was once viewed as competition into a financial asset worthy of protection by indigenous peoples. It is a model that has worked for decades in Africa’s hunting countries. The reverse is proven in Kenya, whose total ban of hunting in 1977 has left the country nearly barren of game.
So what happens post-Cecil? My hope is the perpetrators are tried and punished, and we hunters redouble our efforts to find ethical outfitters and yes, learn the minutia of local laws. My fear is Cecil’s legacy signals a sea change for Africa, for if the well-intended yet misinformed prevail and tourist hunting and the critical funding it creates is curtailed, it could be the beginning of the end for African wildlife as we know it.