The world has been outraged by the death of Cecil, a well-known radio-collared lion killed by a trophy hunter outside Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. I know too well the pain of losing beloved study animals: over 200 of my known lions have been killed by people in the 18 years I have done research on lion conservation in Kenya. How can that happen in Kenya, where trophy hunting was banned in 1977? And why has most of the country's famed wildlife disappeared since the ban?
In spite of this week’s unprecedented media attention, we on the front lines of lion conservation are frustrated by the coverage because trophy hunters are the least of the problems facing Africa’s roughly 30,000 remaining lions. Large carnivores are the most difficult animals to conserve because they prey on large grazers. With ever more people and ever less wilderness, lions’ natural prey have been largely replaced by cattle, sheep and goats. When predators eat livestock, the owners kill them in retaliation; when did you last see a wolf, mountain lion or grizzly bear?
Much of Africa is too dry for farming, but supports livestock and pastoralists like the Masai and Turkana, who live off their herds. Their traditional livestock management effectively protects cattle from predators but lions which take livestock persistently are killed. Lions breed rapidly, however, and populations can tolerate substantial losses.
Today however, there are fewer lions, more cattle, more warriors, and cheap agricultural pesticides that may wipe out whole prides when sprinkled on a fresh carcass. For every male lion shot legally by a trophy hunter, many more of both sexes and all ages are illegally poisoned, speared or shot after taking livestock.
"Bush meat" is still a major source of protein in much of Africa, and snares kill millions of animals every year, prey and predators alike. It is a slow cruel death, the wire cutting into the victim’s neck as it struggles and strangles slowly. Some manage to break the wire; I once caught a striped hyena in which wire had cut nearly an inch deep, so long ago that it was embedded in thick bone-like calcification that I had to chip away with pliers and a chisel. Three of my study lions survived only because their radio collars prevented a snare from tightening and we were able to free the animal. Most are not so lucky.
It is easy to vent outrage on wealthy foreign hunters who shoot magnificent animals, but can we criticize impoverished rural people who kill wildlife for food or to defend their herds? Love of pets and wild animals is a luxury that comfortable, well-fed westerners can afford, but we cannot expect lion love from impoverished people when they lose their precious cattle.
Humans who share the landscape will determine whether wildlife persists or disappears, and emotional protests from Europe and America will not influence the outcome. If people perceive wildlife as an expensive, dangerous nuisance, they destroy it. If wild animals improve their economic well-being, they protect it.
Conservation will always center on well-protected parks, free of major human disturbance and supported by tourist dollars. However, most parks are too small to protect the entire landscapes required by species which undertake seasonal migrations in search of water and grazing. Tourists can take their photos in a few hundred square miles of scenery dotted with animals and comfortable lodges, but they don’t go to hot, scrubby, monotonous regions, nor to countries mired in political instability.
Hunters in search of adventure and old males as trophies are not put off by such niceties, and their money could, in theory, motivate local people to protect the game. Banning hunting is not the answer: since 1997, 80% of Kenya’s wildlife has been snared, poisoned, or poached for its ivory. But restoration of hunting is no longer feasible in Kenya, simply because there is no longer enough wildlife to support it.
Today, neither tourism nor trophy hunting returns enough money to local people to provide the incentive. Wildlife continues to dwindle while profits stay with the tourism or hunting companies, governments, and in officials’ pockets. Poor people and wild animals have no voice.
I have long felt that pressure for effective conservation from western governments on African governments, akin to pressures for human rights or economic reform, will be needed if we are to reverse the decline in wildlife. Lions don't need PETA. They need another conservationist like Teddy Roosevelt in the White House.