[Note: The following was first published in the September 2015 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2015 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
As I sat making plans for the coming fall’s hunting season and looking forward to the amenities and isolation of hunting camp, the Cecil-the-lion story hit the news. “American hunter killed Cecil, beloved lion that was lured out of its sanctuary,” read a July 28 New York Times headline.
As I suspected, it was not long before the furor began on social media. It didn’t matter that all the facts were not yet in; hunting and poaching were being painted with the same brush. In the eyes of some people, all hunters are just as guilty as the people who allegedly killed Cecil illegally.
This story has taken a life of its own and will likely cast a pall over hunting in general for a long time as each step in the process of bringing the alleged perpetrators to justice grinds on. Now, it must be acknowledged (as often doesn’t happen in social media posts) that what we have heard in the news is mostly hearsay.
As of this writing, what we do know is that on July 1, 2015 an American hunter killed a male African lion outside Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe. The lion was a 13 year-old patriarch of a large lion pride in the park who was popular with tourists, hence given the name Cecil, and was part of a long-term scientific study (he had been radio-collared). It is alleged the hunter’s guides lured the lion out of the protection of the national park, using rotting meat, into the range of the hunter’s crossbow. The American hunter, Dr. Walter Palmer a dentist from Minnesota, apparently wounded the lion with his crossbow, and after tracking the animal for two days, killed it with a rifle.
According to Zimbabwean conservation officials, the lion, known by many tourists for its “jet-black mane,” was beheaded, skinned and his corpse left to “rot in the sun.” Such an inflammatory description hit social media networks in late July like wildfire. As a result, Dr. Palmer had to close his dental practice in Minnesota, delete his Facebook page and issue a statement that he did not realize the lion was “a known, local favorite” until the end of the hunt. He stated, “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.” Palmer then went into hiding amid threats against his life. Zimbabwe has requested the extradition of Palmer from the United States to face poaching charges.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe officials arrested Palmer’s guide, professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst, and the landowner on whose land the alleged crime occurred for “failing to prevent an illegal hunt.” A joint statement issued by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe stated: “both the professional hunter and land owner had no permit or quota to justify the offtake of the lion and therefore are liable for the illegal hunt.”
There are, of course, two sides to the story. A day before his first court appearance, Bronkhorst told NBC news, “I don’t feel I have done anything wrong.” As of this writing, there have been no further statements from him or his outfitting company, which is understandable as the case is before the court and any statement by the accused could jeopardize a fair trial. However, according to unconfirmed statements from other guided hunters who were in the same hunting camp as Palmer (as posted on the AO Forum), the hunter and his guide committed no crime for the following reasons:
- The borders of Hwange National Park are not fenced and the animals in the park are free to roam outside the park where they are fair game.
- It is not illegal to shoot a collared animal as long as the collar is returned to the national park, as was done in this case.
- No one lured Cecil out of the park. He came to the carcass of an elephant where it had died of natural causes, and where the hunter and guide had set up a blind. They did not know the animal was collared until after it was killed.
Now, these are hearsay statements that I unfortunately could not confirm. However, I think they illustrate that what you hear in the news media and especially in social media is not necessarily the full story. Nevertheless, it is also important to note that the statements did not mention the permit issue that most likely will determine the guilt or innocence of Bronkhorst and the landowner.
The guilt or innocence of Dr. Palmer is another matter. Zimbabwe has an extradition treaty with the U.S. So, it is likely Palmer will have to defend himself in an extradition hearing in the U.S. where he (i.e., his lawyer) will try to convince a judge that he is not guilty because he was just following his guide’s directions and had no knowledge of alleged missing permits or the identity of the lion. If Zimbabwe can convince the judge to the contrary, then Palmer will have to defend himself in that country.
Legalities aside, Palmer, Bronkhorst and trophy hunting in general have already been convicted in the court of public opinion. It will not matter if the hunter and his guide are found innocent. It does not matter that Cecil was an ageing lion that most likely would have died soon anyway, perhaps more horribly than he did. It does not matter that many Zimbabweans fear lions and other big cats because these animals regularly stalk their villages and kill and maim many people annually. It does not matter that trophy hunting in Africa (and elsewhere) contributes to local economies and in many ways ensures that wildlife conservation remains an important endeavour in these countries. It does not matter that the carcasses of most trophy kills in Africa are given to local communities for food and other uses.
What does matter is the hit trophy hunting will take in these countries. Already Zimbabwe has banned trophy hunting around Hwange Park. Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and Air Canada have announced they will no longer transport hunting trophies. Online petitions are calling on various countries to ban the import of such trophies. If these campaigns succeed, the future of international trophy hunting could be bleak. As well, the future of wildlife conservation in many African countries could be in jeopardy unless other revenue sources can be found.
Trophy hunting here in Alberta and Canada is not immune to these campaigns. The Cecil story is being used as an example of why trophy hunting should be banned here, including the hunting of predators and the selling of licences to foreign non-residents.
As I have said before in this column, debates about the pros and cons of hunting are ultimately about values, not facts and figures. Most people can understand hunting for food if done legally. However, many have a problem with people who hunt for the sole purpose of displaying the dead animal on a wall or in a den. They don’t understand why it’s necessary to kill anything for that purpose. As we all know, hunting is much more than the trophy but we seldom talk about that outside or own social circles. Perhaps it is time to break out of those circles.
Comments are always welcome (below).