Early in July, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer went to Zimbabwe to kill a lion. He found one, but it was in a protected park, so he used an animal carcass to lure the lion out. He then shot the lion with an arrow, tracked him for 40 hours, shot him with a rifle, beheaded him, and skinned his corpse. The lion turned out to be named Cecil and was something of a national celebrity.
The story has shocked people around the world. But it raises a larger question: Why is hunting lions legal at all?
Lions are in crisis. "Nearly a century ago an estimated 200,000 lions roamed across Africa," National Geographic's Brian Clark Howard reports. "Now there are less than 30,000, and they are considered highly vulnerable." The root cause of this decline is habitat loss, but why should we allow hunters to contribute to the problem?
The answer is more complicated than you think. Regulated hunting can actually be quite effective at preserving large wildlife. But, as implemented, this has not worked for lions — and at times has actually hurt lion populations. The big question now is whether hunting can be effective at helping to preserve lions as it does with other populations — or if it's in the best interests of lions to ban the practice altogether.
There's a strong case for hunting as a conservation tool in general
Killing lions to save them may sound ridiculous. But a lot of conservationists take the idea seriously.
"However unpleasant people find this, this can be a good conservation technique," Dr. Jane Smart, the global director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, told the Washington Post.
If local governments legalize big-game hunting, then they can make money by selling the permits and taxing the influx of cash from rich foreigners. If those governments designate a chunk of those proceeds for conservation efforts, they'll be able to spend more money mitigating the deeper causes of lion decline.
Another, perhaps stronger argument is that profitable, legal hunting makes people more likely to protect animals. Conservation Magazine took a look at one of the most compelling studies — from Nigel Leader-Williams, a professor at the University of Cambridge.
Leader-Williams and his team looked at white rhinoceros populations in South Africa before and after the country legalized hunting them. They found that the white rhino population grew from under 100 to over 10,000. Hunting had made it profitable for landowners to introduce and protect white rhinos on their land; the market prodded people to actively participate in conservation.
Leader-Williams also found something similar in Zimbabwe: "Implementing trophy hunting has doubled the area of the country under wildlife management relative to the 13% in state protected areas," he wrote in a 2011 letter to Science magazine.
In theory, then, permitting big-game hunting could also help protect lion populations. But in practice, its record is not good.
Legalized hunting has been much less successful with lions
The research on lion hunting is much less encouraging. Perhaps most concerning is a 2010 study led by Craig Packer at the University of Minnesota. Packer and company focused on Tanzania, which has the largest remaining lion population in Africa. They fitted lions with collars, tracked yields from hunting expeditions, and designed mathematical models to account for things like the spread of lion illness.
What they found was alarming: "Trophy hunting appears to have been the primary driver of a decline in lion abundance in the country’s trophy hunting areas" and may even be reducing populations in protected national parks. There's no evidence that legalized trophy hunting is on net helping lion populations in Tanzania; on the contrary, it appears to be accelerating their decline.
A 2013 study, authored by Panthera's Peter Andrew Lindsey and other scientists, surveyed the broader state of research on lion hunting and reached a similar conclusion.
"Several studies have demonstrated that excessive trophy harvests have driven lion population declines," they write, finding evidence for harm from hunting in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Cameroon. They found that the biggest problem is that policies are poorly designed and managed.
In order for any sustainable hunting program to work, you need to have quotas on the number of animals killed to make sure hunters don't kill too many. These quotas, according to Lindsey and company, "are generally not established in a scientific manner and there is an over-reliance on subjective personal opinions during the process, including those of hunting operators." In practice, that can mean that far too many lions are legally allowed to be killed.
Another problem is killing young lions: If males are killed before they turn 6, they often don't have time to raise a family. Some countries have age restrictions, but according to Lindsey's team they're not well-enforced. Moreover, a lot of hunters — local professionals and their foreign clients alike — don't know how to tell a young male from an old one.
And there are lots of other problems, ranging from poor trophy monitoring to corrupt wildlife management officials, that make lion hunting programs damaging to lion populations rather than helpful in preserving them.
The case for reforming but allowing hunting of lions
Lindsey and company are optimistic that lion hunting can be made effective. They point to declining kills of lions in countries that have made an effort to tighten quotas and improve lion population management, and warn that banning lion hunting altogether could hurt more than it helps.
"Trophy hunting can create incentives for the conservation of lions and the retention of land under wildlife-based land uses," they write, citing past studies. "Trophy hunting can also theoretically increase local tolerance of lions, and thus reduce persecution resulting from the threat that the species poses to livestock and human life."
There are other proposals. In addition to tightening quotas, Packer suggests that fencing off lion reserves could keep lions on protected ground, saving lives — though this idea is controversial.
And it's important to note that this has ramifications for human beings as well: Countries and local communities, some of which badly need the tax revenue, can put any money from hunting not just toward animal conservation but also toward, for example, social services. This opens up some very thorny and complex questions about how you weigh the life of a lion against, say, the benefits of increasing local education spending. But it's worth at least keeping those questions in mind.
The case for banning lion hunting outright
Other conservationists and animal advocates think it's time to do away with lion hunting altogether.
Jeff Flocken, the North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, thinks lion hunting is simply unreformable. The hunter preference for adult males, he argues, makes the practice inherently unsustainable.
"When an adult male lion is killed, the destabilization of that lion's pride can lead to more lion deaths as outside males compete to take over the pride," Flocken writes in National Geographic.
"Once a new male is in the dominant position, he will often kill the cubs sired by the pride's previous leader, resulting in the loss of an entire lion generation within the pride." Age targeting, he thinks, is impossible to implement: You can only check if a lion is too young after it's already dead.
There's some evidence that banning hunting outright can work. Two Oxford researchers, Andrew Loveridge and David Macdonald, looked at the effect of legal lion hunting outside of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park (Cecil's home) on lion populations inside the park.
They found evidence that the existence of legal hunting outside of the park hurt the population inside the park: "Each removal of a male lion by hunters on the borders of the park created a ‘territorial vacuum’ which drew males from further inside the protected area into boundary areas, where they too became vulnerable to hunters."
After the research, Zimbabwe suspended lion hunting around the park until 2009 — during which time the population went up by 50 percent. The ban worked, at least temporarily (since 2009, hunting around Hwange has been reintroduced, but is more limited).
This isn't an academic question — nor is it just an African one. The American government holds a tremendous amount leverage over the African lion industry; roughly 60 percent of all lion "trophies" (heads or pelts) end up getting sent to the United States. If the US were to list lions as an endangered species, which it doesn't currently, importing lion trophies would be banned. That could dramatically reduce the demand for sport hunting, as it'd suddenly be much harder to take them home. But it would also deny the ability of sub-Saharan African governments to set their own policies on these animals, and make it harder for them to collect tax revenue they could spend on services for their populations.
The case of Cecil seems clear-cut, which is part of what's made it so emotionally compelling. But the larger issue of lion conservation and how hunting fits into it is much tougher.