The Covid-19 pandemic put the spotlight on how human expansion has led to an increase in zoonotic viruses jumping species, and calls on us to re-set our relationship with nature. In It’s Not About The Bats, author Adam Cruise explores the ethical and practical issues – and solutions – to the greatest problem facing earth. This extract published by permission.
Late one evening in July 2015, I got a call from a contact in Zimbabwe to say that a well-known male lion (whom I had seen on several occasions) had been killed by a trophy hunter, supposedly by mistake since the lion had a radio collar (which the hunters tried to bury). At that stage, I was publishing regularly for National Geographic and immediately sent in a pitch to have the story published. The editor in Washington, DC responded in the negative, saying they would pass on the story since nobody had heard of this lion. ‘Who is Cecil?’ came the blunt response. He did have a point. Neither he, nor I, could have known that this particular lion’s death would become so legendary.
I half-heartedly took the story to the South African media. They published it. This led to The Telegraph in the UK publishing it. It then spread like wildfire across the world. Only when the saga of Cecil the lion became a global phenomenon did National Geographic somewhat belatedly take up my story. Why Cecil became a globally publicised phenomenon was puzzling. This scenario where trophy hunters ‘inadvertently’ kill the pride of the gene pool is one that plays out across southern Africa on a weekly, if not daily, basis. In those early reports we thought the hunter was Spanish, not the dentist from the US. Yet, in my own reporting, I was not so much interested in the identity of the trophy hunter. It was more about the problems of trophy hunting in general.
Most of the time, certainly from my own investigations over the years, it is usually less a case of a mistaken identity and instead a hunter responding to a felt preference of wanting the biggest and best trophy, and being willing to pay extra for it. Think about it, no foreign hunter is going to take home a trophy of a mangy, scarred, toothless old lion who has passed his prime. The etymology of ‘trophy’ means the animal must above all be prized.
I have seen on several occasions how all the players in a so-called case of mistaken identity are complicit in covering it up. In 2018, I reported on a similar case to that of Cecil, only this time it was in South Africa. A breeding male lion in his prime, called Skye, had ‘mistakenly’ been shot by a trophy hunter after he had been lured from the safety of the Kruger National Park into one of the private hunting concessions. Even so, it is illegal to shoot breeding males in the country. All involved, however, became part of the attempted cover-up. This included the outfitter, the professional hunter, the taxidermist and even the provincial authority. Nonetheless, the story was exposed, but the law, although in place, is weak and the perpetrators, as was the case with Cecil, all got off scot-free.
But perhaps most revealing is the fact that older males of long-living social species such as elephants are actually not as redundant as trophy hunting legislation and its proponents maintain. A groundbreaking 2020 study suggests that, in long-lived social species, older individuals do in fact provide benefits to their family and societal groups by imparting valuable ecological knowledge gained through decades of experience. Until now, research has largely focused on females in matrilineal societies where, for example, older female African elephants are most effective at making decisions crucial to herd survival. But little is known about the role of older males as leaders in these species. By analysing leadership patterns of all-male African elephant travelling groups along elephant pathways in Botswana, researchers found that the oldest males were more likely to lead collective movements. This, then, challenges the assumption that older male elephants are redundant in the population and, consequently, raises concerns over the removal of old bulls by trophy hunters. Selective harvesting of older males could thus have serious detrimental effects on the wider elephant society through loss of leaders crucial to younger male navigation. So, even if done ‘legally’, trophy hunting still removes those individuals essential to the collective survival of the species. Future research could reveal similar results in other species targeted by trophy hunters, such as rhino, lion, leopard, and perhaps even buffalo.
Then, second, there is the problem of ‘population demography’. There is an absence of reliable data on which to base trophy hunting quotas for many species. This leads to very real concerns about the potential negative and unsustainable impact that trophy hunting can have on populations. Population demographies of many species across Africa are being affected by trophy hunting. The combined effect of poaching and trophy hunting removing the breeding individuals and genetically more adaptable animals has had serious consequences for the growth of wild animal populations.
At a CITES level, hunting quotas are discussed and are supposedly based on the ability of a species to withstand hunting pressure. CITES regulates international trade in species listed on its Appendices, which requires that trophies for export conform to relevant definitions and are legally obtained in their country of origin, their export is not detrimental to the survival of the species concerned, and the trophy-hunting operations are sustainably managed. However, the mechanisms for scrutinising the sustainability of trophy hunting operations are weak and left largely to national governments, and there are no provisions relating to the welfare of the animal or animals from which the trophies are derived.
Recall that CITES is a trade organisation for endangered species, meaning that hunters are big players in these meetings because they love targeting those poor animals that have become rare. From my experience at these meetings, it’s a tug-of-war between hunting lobbyists and field scientists, with the former usually gaining the ear of Parties. The reason for this is that hunting organisations such as the American-based Safari Club International are extremely powerful and carry a lot of bargaining power, mostly in the form of cash. Southern African governments, in particular, kow-tow to these organisations for their financial contributions, so it comes as no surprise that hunting delegations have gained access to the highest offices of these governments. The resultant outcome of hunting quotas granted at CITES is almost always far more than what the field scientists have put forward.