Cecil and the myth of conservation through sport hunting


The killing of Cecil the lion by dentist Walter Palmer reveals just how far some sport hunters will go to satisfy their desire to kill an animal. It also provides an opportunity for the United States, Zimbabwe and other countries to re-evaluate the strength of laws intended to prevent such vile acts.

Unfortunately, some hunting organizations are using this event to argue that hunting of African lions and other animals can be a “useful conservation tool.” In their view, regulated hunting provides money to African governments for use on conservation projects. Unfortunately, this claim overlooks a simple fact: While legal sport hunting raises money in the short-term, it has not been shown to improve the overall survivability of the species in the wild.

The fact is, sport hunting creates a dual market for many threatened or endangered species, such as African elephants, lions and rhinos. A dual market occurs when both legal and illegal trade of a species exists. While it is generally illegal to kill or harm critically endangered African wildlife, exceptions are made for sport hunters. But it is naïve to believe that these two markets don’t interact to the detriment of endangered species. 

A dual market tends to reduce the stigma associated with the killing of endangered animals. For example, authorizing killing and export of sport hunted lions under the guise of “conservation” can falsely suggest that lion populations are recovering. At the same time, it reinforces the belief that lion parts as trophies and other uses should be highly desired.

A dual market can also directly undermine attempts to stop poaching by creating opportunities to “launder” illegally killed animals. “Laundering” is the act of bringing illegal goods to legal markets through transactional schemes aimed to conceal the identity, source, and destination of illicitly obtained items. Laundering is most often associated with stolen objects, such as money, guns, art and antiquities. Poached animals and their parts can also be laundered by identifying them as products of legal sport hunting. Even in the age of advanced crime fighting technology, it remains difficult — if not impossible — for law enforcement to distinguish between a legally killed and an illegally killed animal once it is in the market.

The problem with dual markets in protecting African wildlife is not speculation. Studies and field observations show that an increase in the number of legally killed animals is directly correlated to an increase in demand for that species and, thus, poaching. Therefore, it is impractical to assume that certain species are “managed” through the legal market because sport hunting inevitably creates a dual market. This is impossible to regulate. Realistically, even if all of the money from hunting actually goes to conservation efforts, the conservation efforts will be thwarted by the expansion of illegal trade in the black market. Furthermore, the recent rise in poaching in Africa suggests that hunting has done little to reduce poaching and protect the overall viability of certain species.

For nearly a decade, the advocacy group Friends of Animals has sought to raise awareness of the effects a dual market has on wildlife conservation. Today, agencies like the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have acknowledged the problem, but have so far failed to consider changes to trophy importation laws. It is time for the United States, and other member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, including Zimbabwe, to examine the myth of sport hunting and wildlife conservation.

Harris is director of the Wildlife Law Center for Friends of Animals. He works out of the western regional office in Colorado.