Was Cecil the lion a martyr for his species?

Repost from my article with Diogo Verissimo on The Conversation

The death of a celebrity often makes the headlines, but it is less common that the death of wild animal has the same effect. However, it appears that the entire world has mourned the loss of Cecil the lion, killed on a private game reserve bordering a national park in Zimbabwe. But is the recent barrage of attacks on trophy hunting, and the US dentist who killed Cecil, justified?

Let’s be clear: Cecil was killed illegally, which we don’t condone. The landowner who allowed the hunt on his reserve without the necessary permit should face the justice system. But this one bad apple should not tarnish an entire industry.

Legally hunting lions in Zimbabwe is highly regulated: it requires various permits and licenses from the client, professional hunter and hunting reserve owner. National quotas aim to ensure sustainable off-take of the species and, in western Zimbabwe, lions are only killed once they have reached a certain age to make sure they’ve had the chance to pass their genes on. As a result, lion populations in Zimbabwe are either stable or increasing.

So if hunts are conducted following these rules, can trophy hunting really help conserve lions? Some argue that even if this were the case, the practice still shouldn’t be allowed because it involves killing a charismatic and threatened animal for fun. Opponents suggest that non-lethal alternatives such as photographic tourism should be the main way in which conservation is funded. But there are a number of problems with this argument.

Tourism isn’t the answer

Hunters are willing to go to remote and unstable areas that most photographic tourists are unwilling to venture into. Far more photographic tourists would have to travel to Africa than hunters to make up the same level of revenue, so the carbon footprint from all that air travel would surely have a significant environmental impact. It should also be noted that the potential for nature tourism is not equally distributed, with the industry often focused only around a few locations. This leaves other regions without access to tourism revenue. Oh, and let’s not forget that wildlife reserves can also kill lions.

If the goal is to preserve populations and species (as opposed to the welfare of individual animals), countries with healthy wildlife populations should be able to use their natural resources to cover the costs of management. This is particularly the case in countries such as Zimbabwe, one of the poorest places in the world.

How hunting helps

Zimbabwe has a tradition of using trophy hunting to promote wildlife conservation. Through the CAMPFIRE programme, which ran from 1989 to 2001, more than US$20m was given to participating communities, 89% of which came from sports hunting. In more recent times, populations of elephants and other large herbivores have been shown to benefit from trophy hunting.

Zimbabwean trophy hunting generates roughly US$16m of revenue annually. While it has been rightly pointed out that only 3% of this goes towards local communities, the ethical implications of removing this money without a clear alternative need to be examined.

The economic impact of trophy hunting in comparison to tourism as a whole may not be huge, but what is the alternative if it is made illegal? Zambia banned trophy hunting of big cats in 2013, only to reverse it earlier this year because the government needed the money to fund conservation.

Conservation costs money – so does the damage done by lions killing livestock. It is not clear whether photographic tourism alone could cover these financial burdens.

Lions can cause dramatic financial burdens to local communities Niki Rust

Improving the situation

If trophy hunting is to continue, how can we make it more sustainable? One study suggested we need to enforce age restrictions on trophy animals throughout the entire country , improve monitoring, change quotas over time depending on environmental conditions and ensure lion hunts are at least 21 days long.

Another study found that trophy hunting can be beneficial to lion conservation when the income is shared with locals who live with this species (and have to deal with the negative consequences of their presence).

While it is sad that we sometimes have to resort to killing animals for conservation, let’s not allow emotions to overtake our arguments. Conservation is a complex, difficult industry and needs all the financial help it can get: we are after all living through the sixth mass extinction. How much money will that take to fix?


  1. Hello Niki,

    thanks for your articles and blogs, always interesting to read.

    With the vast amount of land protected partly or solely because of trophy hunting, I acknowledge that it obviously, if it's well managed, helps conservation. Instead I've some problems unterstanding _why_ that's the case. Maybe you can help me out.

    Sure, the idea is letting the local community generate benefits from using wildlife and thus motivate them to tolerate and conserve it, but the report below suggests that the hunting revenues are extremely low, when compared to the GDP, area required and income from photo tourism.

    IUCN PACO - Big Game Hunting in West Africa - What is its contribution to conservation - Bertrand Chardonnet 2009

    Just two examples and two quotes from the IUCN PACO report (page 83-84):

    South Africa
    0.039 % (Contribution of big game hunting to GDP)
    13.1 % (Proportion of national territory in hunting area)

    0.452 % (Contribution of big game hunting to GDP)
    11.4 % (Proportion of national territory in hunting area)

    "This figure remains very low with regard to the surface areas used and it is easier to understand why hunting
    areas cannot resist agricultural encroachment or firewood/charcoal production which make a much greater
    turnover: 500 times more according to the calculation of the GDP/ha, and around 300 to 600 times more
    when the potential agricultural income per hectare is considered."

    "The overall contribution of hunting to the GDP of these countries is very low: it is 0.06% on average, for 15%
    occupation of the national territory. Economically speaking it is therefore a marginal activity but one which
    consumes a high amount of space.
    To conclude, let us reiterate the fact that Kenya, which outlawed hunting in 1977, now makes 15% of its GDP
    from tourism."

    >>> What I would like to ask you <<<

    - How can the hunting conservancies resist agricultural encroachment (in the future), if it's that much more ("600 times") profitable?

    - Shouldn't trophy hunting long be gone, if it generates such a low revenue and is so profitable like IUCN PACO report suggests? Are their numbers flawed/outdated? The IUCN PACO report seems to be remarkably often quoted by animal welfare/rigts proponents to prove trophy hunting useless.

    - How can it be, that the huge sums generated by photo tourism (14.5% Namibia's GDP https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Namibia#Tourism ), even in top hunting destinations like Namibia, can't pay for protected areas currently used and paid for by the "marginal activity" trophy hunting? Just a matter of (non-existent) distribution?

    Thanks and greetings from Freising (Bavaria)

    1. Hi Marius,

      Thanks for your reply.

      It's an interesting question! In fact, there has been research in Namibia that has showed that game farming in general (trophy hunting included) can produced far more money than livestock farming:

      Farming (both crop and livestock) is becoming more difficult because of climate change, so sustainable wildlife consumption is proving to be a better option for land use. This is why so many farms in South Africa converted to game farming.

      One could also argue that the Church of England owns 120,000 acres of land in English rural areas alone (and more in cities), yet its contribution to GDP is almost nil. It is therefore not really the contribution to GDP that is important here - more its intrinsic value to the people and of course its ecological value. Trophy hunting reserves protect a lot of habitat that provide ecosystem services such as soil and forest carbon storage, pollination and soil erosion protection.

      The IUCN report you cite does appear to be outdated. A more recent report shows a different picture: http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_informingdecisionsontrophyhuntingv1.pdf

      For your last point, that 14.5% figure is for tourism in general, including photographic tourism, trophy hunting tourism, cultural tourism, leisure tourism, etc. Photographic tourism therefore provides much less GDP to Namibia. Conservation is an expensive business - most protected areas are running at a deficit. Photographic tourism alone does not cover these costs. Therefore conservation must also find other means to pay the bills. In some countries, trophy hunting has proven an effective income-generating activity that has protected large areas of land. It can't work everywhere and it does sometimes have problems with governance, but has shown to be effective in Namibia.

    2. I'll have a look at the papers you mentioned, thanks.

      > [...] sustainable wildlife consumption is proving to be a better option for land use. This is why so many farms in South Africa converted to game farming.

      Good point, the ongoing existance under the mechanism of the free market is probably the best evidence for their viability.

      > The IUCN report you cite does appear to be outdated. A more recent report shows a different picture: http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/iucn_informingdecisionsontrophyhuntingv1.pdf

      Already knew this one. Between the lines, the new IUCN Briefing Paper from 2016 sounds, at least in my unterstanding, way more optimistic about the capabilities of sustainable usage.



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