My Turn: It’s time to end the ego ‘sport’ of trophy hunting

Last modified: 8/2/2015 12:13:20 AM
This past week, much of the world has been outraged at the tragic death of a renowned lion named Cecil.

I first learned of Cecil’s death shortly after it happened, being connected on social media to opposition pages regarding the controversial “sport” of trophy hunting. I have been active for years against this abhorrent practice of paying tens of thousands of dollars to kill threatened, sometimes even endangered wildlife for thrill. Trophy hunting is practiced around the world, and the top animal predators have always been the most sought after prizes.

Cecil was one of those unlucky ones, a beautiful and majestic male lion with a dark flowing mane. He was so exquisite that he was a photographic favorite, an icon with his soulful eyes peering from images around the world. Those eyes shine no more though because Dr. Walter Palmer also sought out Cecil, except he wanted Cecil’s head on his wall. He wanted to add to his collection, which includes leopard, rhino, bear, mountain lion and polar bear.

Indeed, he wanted Cecil’s head so much that he spent upward of $50,000 and allegedly contrived the hunt with a shady hunting outfit. He is accused of luring Cecil out of a protected area with bait, wounding him with a crossbow bolt, leaving Cecil to suffer for 40 hours before tracking him down and finishing him off with a rifle. Officials in Zimbabwe said he then beheaded and skinned Cecil, leaving his carcass to rot, The final act, officials said, was to remove his research collar and try to destroy the evidence.

Trophy hunters’ major defense of their quest to fill their houses with heads and stuffed corpses is that they are conservationists, they do it because they love these animals and manage their populations for future sustainability. They say the money they spend goes toward the local economy, the meat to local villagers, and without them basically entire species ecosystems will collapse. They quote Teddy Roosevelt and try to invoke the same practices from a century ago, when there were no high powered weapons, lions and other species weren’t facing dwindling numbers, the human population was 1.6 billion as opposed to the 7 billion-plus today, and Africa was still considered the “Dark Continent.”

These myths they hide behind have been debunked. One only has to look at the photos they take, proudly standing over or holding a bloody animal as if they single-handedly wrestled this animal skin to fur and killed it in a fair fight, to see that it is all about ego. It was told right at the time of the discovery of Cecil’s killing that the iconic animal generated more revenue with continual daily photographic viewing over time than a one-time payment with a now dead lion.

Cecil’s body was left to rot so no meat was taken, and it is not an uncommon practice to export carcasses to Asia to feed the demand for lion bone wine since the preferred tiger’s numbers have been completely decimated.

The biggest myth is that trophy hunters are actually helping the wild populations. There is a toll that goes deep when they take out these sought after alpha animals.

Let’s look at the lion pride dynamic, for example. Cecil, along with his coalition partner, were the leaders of two lion prides and, at last estimates, Cecil sired six cubs that were still vulnerable. Male lions form strong coalitions and stay together for life. They know there is power in numbers, and it has been documented time and time again that when one member is killed, the remaining male(s) lose dominance significantly as there are always nomadic or other established coalitions waiting to make their move. It can be a violent, often brutal affair, possibly resulting in death. Lionesses will sometimes join the fight, but, more often than not, they are ushering the cubs to safety. Those cubs will be killed by the incoming coalition.

Oftentimes lionesses are killed defending their babies to the end. Pride males typically have a two- to three-year reign, and cubs are vulnerable until 18 to 24 months, so they need to “work fast” and procreate to ensure their lineage. Territory and reproducing are what these lions fight and die for.

Only one in eight male cubs survive to adulthood, with no guarantee of holding a pride or offspring survival even then. The most dangerous time for sub-adult males is when they are ousted from their prides by their fathers as they begin to be seen as competition. This is actually what ensures genetic diversity, as they must now travel far in the hopes of someday obtaining a pride of their own.

If any adult males see them lurking near their territories, they will be chased and, if caught, most likely killed. What it takes to become a pride leader such as Cecil is exactly what is meant by “survival of the fittest.” Yet trophy hunters take these males out of the gene pool, leaving prides in disarray as males challenge to become dominant, with weaker males being ousted before cubs can reach maturity.

Walter Palmer, in short time, killed many more lions than just his target. This is true of all top keystone predators. With this reckless human interference, the natural order of life is disrupted and the whole animal kingdom suffers for it.

The current outrage the public has needs to be directed toward ending this killing for ego “sport” for good. With approximately 645 lion “trophies” exported from Africa and population estimates as low as 20,000, it is not sustainable. All predators are losing habitat, losing numbers and facing possible extinction, like the Tasmanian tiger did many years ago.

I urge everyone to become proactive and look into organizations such as Born Free and Lion Aid, and also get active in social media to keep up to date on petitions and proposed legislation, and to find out about and boycott individuals, countries and organizations that support trophy hunting.

Somewhere out there in the bush of Zimbabwe, Cecil’s coalition mate, Jericho, is calling for his partner. Thanks to Dr. Walter Palmer, Jericho’s calls will never be answered, and his future is uncertain at best.

(Kristina Snyder lives in Concord.)

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