I was originally asked to write this piece by The Spectator, but apparently I was a bit too late filing my copy – zoology professors and professional hunters are hard to round up at short notice – so here it is, unexpurgated and unimproved.
Je ne suis pas Cecil… and neither was he
I never cease to be surprised either by the posturing courage or the sheer inhumanity of the expressions of ‘moral’ outrage on social media, but this recent furore over the death of the ageing Zimbabwean lion everyone knows as Cecil really has been quite special.
The complicity of the press is particularly grotesque. CNN went as far as to run a photo of the big cat with the caption, “Cecil the lion probably never knew how beloved he was,” surely winning some sort of prize for most redundant use of the modifier ‘probably’ in journalism.
He also certainly didn’t know he was called Cecil, a hilarious piece of nominal colonialism by British conservationists working in the country bloodily carved out of the Dark Continent by Cecil Rhodes and for almost a century called Southern Rhodesia in his questionable honour. (Rhodes is a distant relation of mine.)
I myself fell under the aesthetic spell of lions aged nine –thirty years ago – in London and Colchester Zoos, joined and raised funds for the WWF from that point on, went up to Oxford to study Zoology under renowned Africa ecologist Dr. Malcolm Coe, and myself visited the Hwange Reserve almost twenty years ago where I followed the pride made up of the grandparents, and probably parents, of that lion, whom I photographed at the time.
I refuse to call him Cecil as it simply makes no sense. Pets respond to names, so it might fairly be argued in some sense they ‘know’ their names. Wild animals, who lead a much harder and shorter life than their domestic counterparts, deserve the dignity of not being so arbitrarily and patronisingly ‘tagged’. What is more, when I studied animal behaviour it was believed it skewed research to project human qualities – including names – onto research subjects: avoiding anthropomorhism is the first commandment of ethology.
Of course, lions have long been an animal onto which we project: they have been the totem of Empires from the Persian to the British, and to hunt them has been the zenith of virility from the 7th century BC Assyrian Kings to the Maasai warriors’ rite of passage in the present day.
The actual facts about lions are far cruder. They are a large pack predator and the only truly social member of the cat family. Despite this they are as carelessly loving within the pride as all cats are, as capable of intra as inter species slaughter including mass infanticide, and, like all cats, extraordinarily lazy if allowed by circumstance to be.
When I first went up to Oxford for interview Malcolm Coe asked me my favourite of the African megafauna and when I replied “lion” he sighed and pointed out that they were a deeply unrewarding subject, sleeping for over twenty hours a day and only hunting in the cool and dark of the night. What was more, the magnificent looking males don’t even do that, serving only as procreators who then protect their progeny from the murderous attentions of other males and keeping up their strength for this by stealing kills from their harem of mates.
I do not say this to slander Panthera leo, as I said, I don’t pass human judgments on beasts. The survival of their species is of great importance to me as a vital part of the ecosystem – for three decades now I’ve supported the WWF – and I personally find them beautiful and appealing. However, I long ago gave up romanticising them.
I remember, aged 12, following one pride on a hunt in the Mala Mala private reserve in South Africa and seeing the lionesses bring down a large kudu antelope and begin eating it while alive. The pride’s lead male soon arrived on the scene and fought off his weaker wives to take the best bits – the lion’s share – but not before one female reached her head into the now still carcass and wrenched out a twitching unborn foetus and disappeared into the bushes to devour it at her leisure. (We nearly ran her over in the Landrover on our way home.)
The African lion population in Africa is classed as vulnerable – not endangered, but still vulnerable – and this has been almost exclusively caused by habitat loss. Even if the last wild African lion is shot by a hunter – or more likely killed by a local protecting his livelihood or life – it will not be because of that they vanished. Unlike, for example, the last British wolf (he was killed in Scotland in 1680 following a campaign of eradication.) It will be down to the spread of humanity, pure and simple, something currently being accelerated by astonishing and unremarked on levels of industrial expansion by natural resource-hungry Chinese investment.
The death of this one very old male is no more relevant in terms of the survival of the species than the temporary and absurd generosity of the people who have donated a quarter of a million pounds to Oxford’s ecology unit “in his memory.”
I say absurd, but a better word would be obscene given the plight of the people of that country that went completely ignored for so long under a barbarous regime that all but wiped out the tribe after which the territory in which Hwange resides is named – Matabeleland – in a post-independence genocide. Mugabe’s North Korean trained army of Shona tribesmen killed 20,000 Matabele during the 1980s but apparently they weren’t as pretty as a lion in repose, or have charismatically Caucasian names like Cecil.
Having said that, do I approve of the death of that lion? Absolutely not. Just because I am unwilling to call the death of an animal “murder” as Malcolm Coe did to me in a recent email on this subject – if killing animals could be murder then putting down pets would be euthanasia and killing three million cattle a year in the UK because we like the flavour genocide compounded by cannibalism – I think everything about how it was done stinks.
In theory, if culls of a species need to be made, I can find no principled ethical objection to game reserves selling the right to kill to raise funds for conservation rather than spending money hiring professional hunters to perform the cull. Equally, if hunting reserves spring up returning the land to nature to provide the forage for the herbivorous game, who in turn provide the protein for their carnivorous cousins, who loses?
However, breaches of the law, luring out a ‘trophy’ from a non-hunting zone, followed by the use of a bow as the killing instrument rather than a suitable calibre rifle is simply grotesque. The hunters I know advocate the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum as a bare minimum for dangerous large game, or if you really are a crack shot, why not Hemingway’s favourite, the old 1912 Springfield 30-06, which served the US Army through the Great War and its snipers all the way up to Vietnam?
Of course, not unexpectedly, the electronic outrage at the death of a lion completely ignored the obvious counterfactual that large dangerous animals never die well. Male lions are ousted from the pride and no longer have the lightness of foot to bring down their own game. At best they starve and end up too weak to fend off hyenas, who often begin to eat them while alive starting at the end that has no teeth. At worst they kill livestock or humans – in Tanzania lions reportedly kill around 100 people a year. One noted professional hunter, PH, of my acquaintance says all the lions he’s shot were man-eaters.
(Another serious big game hunter I know says he can’t bring himself to kill cats for personal reasons, a stance with which I personally agree. My best friends as a child were cats, like the one in the photo, and in that sense I am happy not to grow up. However, that doesn’t mean I inflate my infantile emotional attachments into moral proscriptions over others. I have argued elsewhere that there is a cognitive ‘chain of being’ which would bring such a morality into our dealings with certain animals – great apes for the Financial Times; whales, dolphins and porpoises for Prospect magazine – but reality is reality. I would include elephants on that list, and yet they simply must be culled as no animal is more destructive in the relatively small habitats available for conservation today.)
The most important point of all is that the lion in question was at the very end of his natural life, his remaining span being measured in months, not years. So the much-lamented but very natural death of his younger cubs at the paws of another male was just around the corner no matter what.
So what is my conclusion? Well, for the reasons given I find it hard to come to one. Corruption is so endemic in Africa that even well-intentioned hunting permission systems are open to abuse and waves of hunters could take lions to the tipping point. Having done exactly this to the naturally rarer tiger – as solitary territorial beasts only a few can cohabit any given space – a wave of Chinese trophy hunters with even fewer scruples than their American counterparts have led to PHs naming the lion, the “grade II tiger.”
When I wrote to Malcolm Coe for his conclusions I received a request to be left alone in the pessimistic voice of a man who has seen the great plains of Africa dwindle to a sideshow for tourists and biologists who, for all intents and purposes, are studying walking fossils. To give him his due, he ended by saying,
“Suffice it to say that I am on the side of the large mammals of Africa excluding the destructive Homo sapiens.”
I am less particular than my old tutor, and more loyal to my own. When it comes to hunting, I follow my emotional makeup, and am on the side of the predators… all of them, us included.
P.S. I enclose below an open letter by a major big cat conservationist who has had to turn to hunting to fund his projects, forwarded to me by one of the hunters mentioned above. It is well worth reading. AFH
An Open Letter to Theo Bronkhorst
I grew up in a hunting environment. Both my father and grandfather were hunters. I estimate that for every lion taken, we walked and tracked with brilliant Shangaan trackers over 100 kms. Out of every 30 hunts, one was successful.
The problem I have with you and many of your colleagues is, you are living a lie, you are unethical.
When you sell in Vegas and other places, your brochures advertise that you can get the biggest lion for your client. It is well known that wealthy clients will pay extra for an extra large lion and elephant above 60 pounds ivory.
You knew where Cecil the lion’s territory was. You knew if you pulled a bait in that area, you would stand a good chance of getting him.
I trust you will tell the court how much Palmer paid you over and above the normal head tax for an extra large lion. Palmer is wealthy, his mentality is money can buy him big trophies. So he offers more money for big elephant, big lion and big bear.
I am suggesting that this is where your ethics evaporate. The lure of the big dollars!
The other problem I have, is that you know very well that if you take off dominant males, it will cause havoc in the social system of the pride. Is this ever discussed with the client that after you have shot the dominant male, infanticide will occur and cubs may die! I suggest this is never ever mentioned!
The next problem is you know that Cecil must weigh between 450 and 500 pounds. To kill an animal this size with a bow and arrow at night, you have to be highly skilled. Palmer spends his days looking in peoples mouths. He boasts he is good, but how good?
You know that a .375 or .458 should be the weapon used. However, you allow him to shoot with a bow. Why? Because he pays you more money!
Palmer shoots with a bow and arrow to feed his giant ego. Consequently, he wounds the animal.
So Theo, every which way you turn, you are compromised. You are shooting a dominant male with an inferior weapon because he is paying you more money.
You will counter by saying the money Palmer paid goes into conservation. How much of the $55 000 dollars goes into the park, the conservancy, the permit or the local community?
How does the death of Cecil and all the other lions you have taken, benefit the camp fire project?
How many trackers do you employ compared to the eco tourist operators who photographed Cecil day after day, week after week, year after year?
What was Cecil’s value alive compared to your $55 000 dead?
I have some more problems. When I grew up, baiting was considered unsporting. How many lions have you taken using the recorder, where you play distress calls of buffalo or calls of foreign male lions?
All your leopards are taken over a bait from a hide or with a pack of dogs treeing the leopard. Where is the fair chase in that?
As you get towards the end of the hunt, your client will take any leopard, male or female. How do you know that female leopard you’ve taken out doesn’t have small cubs in her den? Even from close, it is difficult to tell if she’s suckling or not. How many leopard cubs have you orphaned?
Theo, I understand it’s difficult to make a living and raise a family in a country which has been run into the ground by atrocious management.
However, you and your colleagues in Zimbabwe and those PH’s doing canned lion hunting in South Africa, are nothing more than mercenary soldiers killing icon animals for money.
I suggest you sit down and do some serious soul searching on the cruelty you create and how you earn a living.
Tread lightly on the Earth