The Meaning Of An Individual Animal


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Feb 8, 2010
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The meaning of an individual animal

Brigid Hains Editorial Director, Aeon Society

Among the reasons not to feel outraged about the killing of Cecil the lion are these two: he had a human name and he was a well-known tourist attraction. I say ‘tourist attraction’ instead of 'beloved lion’ because that hackneyed phrase seems to me a concept empty of meaning. How can a lion be wild and be 'beloved’ by people who saw him once from a safari jeep? You don’t earn the right to 'love’ a lion that way. Cecil was a wild lion who was habituated to humans, collared for a biology study, long-lived and good looking. All those factors have been offered as intensifiers of emotion in the reaction to his killing, but not one of them seems a good reason to care more about this individual lion than any other.

'Cecil’ isn’t the first lion to die when he ventured outside the Hwange National Park. In fact you could argue that a lion of his age has done extremely well to stay alive this long. In a study conducted between 1996 and 2004, 24 out of 62 tagged lions in the Hwange study area were shot dead by sport hunters. Each year around 250 lions are killed - legally - across Africa by trophy-hunters, most of them foreigners who pay staggering amounts of money for the privilege of flying home with a lion head for their wall. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? That’s a very complex question and the only simple answer is that twitter isn’t the best place to decide it. So here’s a start: there are two very different moral issues here which are being confused: the ugly death of a lion at the hands of a sports hunter on the one hand, and the conservation of charismatic predators in Africa on the other.

How do I feel, at a visceral level, about a hunter with a bow and arrow shooting a magnificent big cat; that intelligent, powerful, fierce animal then taking many hours to die, only to be decapitated and shipped to America as a trophy? Well, I don’t feel good. I can’t imagine doing it myself. It is a sad and grotesque end for such a magnificent animal. Still, wild animals come to sad and grotesque ends all the time, especially apex predators. Not many go gently. Canine distemper virus periodically kills many of the lions in Serengeti National Park - a horrible lingering death including grand mal seizures and encephalitis. Many lions die of starvation. When the male lions of a pride die or are killed by rivals, their place is taken by other males who routinely kill all the cubs in order to free up the reproductive potential of 'their’ lionesses. The general estimate is that half of all lion cubs die before the age of two, many from starvation, and only 1 in 8 males makes it to adulthood, as they are forcibly ejected from their maternal pride. Wild lions live with porcupine quills in their faces, intractable bacterial infections, and the constant threat of violence from their own kind. Not many nature documentaries are brave enough to follow a 12 year old lion like Cecil to his slow and painful natural grave. So while it’s an important question whether it is right for a hunter to kill, deliberately, a healthy, adult male lion in a fashion that ensures a painful and lingering death, let us not be blinded to what kind of end awaits such an animal otherwise.

More importantly I’m not sure that one can feel disgusted at the death of this one lion while not protesting the killing of bears in the United States. In California alone there is a hunting quota of 1500 black bears per year. That’s 6 times as many lions as are killed in the whole of Africa each year. The black bear population of California is exactly the same size as the African lion population, yet is deemed to be sustainably harvested at 6 times the rate of African lions. Bears are routinely hunted with dogs in the US (yes that is the origin of the term 'hounding’) although some states, including CA in 2012, have banned this practice. 1 in 10 black bears killed by hunters in California are killed with bows and arrows - in 2013 that was around 100 individuals. None of those bears were 'beloved’; had human names, or were tourist attractions. None of their deaths sparked outrage. Black bears are intelligent, magnificent, fierce animals. Bear hunters skin and behead their catch (why else would they hunt?) and thus they furnish the lounges and dens, just as a lion hunter does. A bear killed with an arrow is unlikely to die a clean and polished death. A bear wounded with an arrow even less so. So why are there over 300,000 tweets about Cecil the Lion and none about Californian black bears? The answer is obvious - it’s a viral moral outrage storm, and it obscures the second moral question at stake here: the conservation management of African lions.

The African lion population has declined steeply in recent decades to its present level of somewhere between 23000 and 39000 individuals. The terrible reality is that charismatic apex predators do not flourish anywhere in the world where they co-exist with large, dense human populations. Tigers in India, grizzlies in the US, wolves in Europe, sharks off the coast of eastern Australia, cougars in Florida, none of them will find it easy to survive without vigorous management and protection. Complete quarantining of predators from people is possible only in protected areas (national parks and the like) but such areas will never provide enough habitat for large wild populations to be sustained. Large predators need territory to follow their prey through the seasons and they cannot be contained, short of fencing national parks. Nor can they be domesticated enough to be guaranteed never to kill livestock and even humans. So there must be compromises reached in how these predators live in proximity to human populations outside of national parks, because conflicts with humans are the most important causes of mortality for lions in edge zones.

One reasonably promising model is to develop buffer zones around protected areas in which wildlife can live, if not being strictly protected, and in Africa these often take the form of hunting concessions, Wildlife Management Areas, game controlled areas and so on. These are not empty places, but are full of people as well as wildlife. Buffer zones around national parks are often intensely contested lands. In East Africa they are - at best, for wildlife - home to traditional pastoralists, whose livestock practices (mobile, seasonal grazing at low population densities) have enabled them to co-exist for centuries alongside a rich biota of wild animals. But all too often, land that abuts national parks is needed by farmers whose populations are expanding, and whose land is already poor in financial return. The great conundrum for African governments and their advisors is how to balance these competing needs for resources. In an ideal world, local peoples have both economic use of their land and economic incentives to foster healthy populations of wild animals on that same land. So far, this is extremely rare. There are only a few ways for that to work and in East Africa it’s usually some combination of pastoralism, tourism, and hunting concessions. For species like lion and elephant, who are dangerous, who kill local people, and are destructive of their livelihoods (eating, respectively, livestock and crops), the incentives need to be particularly strong to offset the costs. That is where hunting licences can play a role. As everyone now knows, the cost to an American tourist of hunting big game in Africa is stupendous. Right now, very little of that tends to flow back into local communities. I’ve seen myself the armoured vehicles and machine-gun toting guards of the Game Controlled Areas around Longido in northern Tanzania. They are leased to Arab hunting companies and in constant conflict with local Maasai pastoralists. But in other parts of Africa, notably Namibia, hunting concessions are in fact run by local communities, who benefit substantially from them. And these include those expensive, rare, lion hunting licences. Most African states only allow the off-take of adult male lions, who are after all reproductively the least valuable individuals. By contrast, in Kenya, where trophy hunting was banned in 1977, and traditional pastoralism largely dismantled by privatisation of common lands, national parks are surrounded, cheek by jowl, with farms growing vegetables and flowers for the European market. And Kenyan wildlife populations have declined by up to 70% since then.

The liberal conscience may revolt. Isn’t trophy hunting the crudest replay of imperial violence? Aren’t we thrown back to Teddy Roosevelt, killing hundreds of creatures in a rampage around southern Africa at the turn of the century? Isn’t it shameful to see an American toting a dead leopard with a big smile on his face?

Maybe. But surely the generous response is to think not only of the tourists who 'loved’ a lion; and of the lion himself; but also to think of the black bears of California, and the struggling pastoralist communities of East Africa: of all the living beings implicated in this web of global transactions, before we jump to moral outrage about this one death.
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Hey keep Calif out of this.
The whinny tree huggers have already completely screwed up the state and hunting. Heck it is not even the Dept of Fish & Game anymore. It is fish and wildlife. More money from fish and hunting lic/tags go to the tree huggers non-game/fish projects than for the sport take of said animals since they now run and are a major portion of the departments employees. The bear Quota was not even filled since they banned dogs. Now bobcat trapping is banned. We are having mountain lion troubles in towns etc since all the feel-good tree huggers got their ban on hunting in place. Also the deer/elk herds have taken a terrible hit.
There was never a shortage of bear in the state but now and soon more problems are happening due to the large increase of numbers just like the mountain lion. But the deer populations are depressed and in some areas just gone.
In Northern Mozambique, the only animals I have seen outside the hunting concessions are baboons and monkeys, seriously high IQ 's to survive.
My god....What a mess.

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