A lion slaying in Zimbabwe sparks debate about the future of big game hunting

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Thanks for being with us. For many people in Zimbabwe, Cecil was this beloved iconic lion. For a dentist from Minnesota, Cecil was prey and shooting him was the whole point of spending over $50,000 on a hunting trip to Zimbabwe. Nevermind that Cecil was wearing a GPS tracking collar or that he lived in a protected state park. The hunters apparently lured the lion out of the park with bait. The outrage over Cecil’s killing has been so loud and so amplified by social media that Dr. Walter Palmer had to shut down his practice back in Minnesota. What we’re going to do now is talk about some key things that have made people so upset by this, like are lions endangered in the wild in southern Africa.


[Excerpt from audio]


Werman: That’s the view of a professional hunter. We’ll hear more from him in a minute. We want to start though with Johnny Rodrigues, who chairs the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force in Harare. Rodrigues says he frequently watched Cecil in the bush.


Johnny Rodrigues: It’s fantastic there to see a majestic animal in its own habitat with the lionesses and the cubs, Cecil and his pride. He walks past you, giant, scary, but he just carries on as if you’re just part of the ecosystem. It’s something once in a lifetime. A lot of people have got memories and this is why you find there is an outcry in the world--not only because he got killed but it’s the manner in which he got killed.


Werman: So what we know now is that this American dentist, Walter Palmer, allegedly shot Cecil, this lion, with a bow and a rifle; he was assisted by two Zimbabweans, a professional hunter and a farm owner, who apparently appeared in court today charged with poaching and not having the required hunting permit. Is it unusual for trophy hunters in Zimbabwe to operate outside the law?


Rodrigues: No, this has been happening for quite a few years. I’ve actually witnessed it myself, where a guy kills impala and drags it behind his car to leave a scent, and when they get to the area where they’re allowed to hunt, then they put the bait down or hang it up in a tree and the animal can smell it, they come to it, and then they get shot.


Werman: We’ve heard that lions are not endangered and that there’s a need to cull them. Do you agree with that?


Rodrigues: No, I don’t agree with that. The issue here is that people are making excuses. In Zimbabwe, there’s 15 licenses that have been issued for breeding these lions for the hunting fraternity. Now, the majority of the people want those lions from the wild. So when you come and hunt, it’s a (?) hunt, the lion is put in a place, it’s drugged, and you just come along, put a shot in it, and you go back and you say, “Wow, look at me, I’ve got my trophy. I’ve got a lion. I’m a big white hunter.” I mean, it’s not even a challenge. This industry has to be stopped, because in 1980 we had over 80,000 lions in Africa. Today, the figure stands around 22,000-23,000, so they’re dwindling quite quickly and they play an important part in the wildlife management.


Werman: If there were a moratorium put in place on this kind of big game hunting, how much money would Zimbabwe lose?


Rodrigues: I don’t think they would lose. They would gain because the tourism would actually increase. At the moment, you’ve got the hunters coming in and doing what they like. For instance, like here in Zimbabwe we lost a tourist icon and we have to work on that and sort it out.


Werman: So big game can be hunted legally in Zimbabwe and, in theory, some of the big money that hunters pay for license fees goes back into wildlife conservation. So, you’ve worked in conservation in Zimbabwe for 16 years, do those fees from hunters get funneled back into conservation and to some of the poor communities?


Rodrigues: No. This is where the problem comes in: let’s make sure the communities and the people that live around these wildlife areas benefit out of it, let them become shareholders. Because what happens is that they are going to be the front line in preventing poaching, and if they get benefits out of it, they will make sure they’re going to protect where their source of money comes from. It’s only the top people or the big landowners and the safari operators who benefit. Those local people get nothing. We hear the story that they’re building roads and they’re doing this… I don’t see it. I travel around this country and, I mean, it’s appalling.


Werman: So the Zimbabweans that you’ve been speaking with, what do they think about the global attention, the global outrage to the death of this one lion, Cecil?


Rodrigues: Yeah, a simple guy goes and shoots an animal to feed his family, he ends up--and if he’s arrested--it’s 15 to 22 years imprisonment. I hope that Mr. Palmer can come and face his music, and I mean defend himself. If he’s innocent, he’ll be released and nobody will accuse him of anything. But if he’s broken the law, then he should be facing the charges the same as the professional hunter and the landowner.


Werman: You believe Dr. Palmer should be prosecuted?


Rodrigues: Well, I believe so. He should face the music. I mean, it’s a crime that was committed. You can’t jump over the fence and say, “I’m safe on this side.”


Werman: Johnny Rodrigues chairs the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. Really appreciate your time today. Thank you.


Rodrigues: Thank you very much.


Werman: Now let’s hear more from the professional hunter we heard briefly earlier. Peter Johnstone runs Rosslyn Safaris located in Zimbabwe, in the province of Matabeleland. It caters to both first time and experienced hunters. I asked Johnstone if he thought the hunters who took down Cecil the lion crossed any lines, especially if they used bait to lure the animal out of a protected park.


Peter Johnstone: Well, Hwange Park is bordered to whole way around by a hunting area--all the way around. It’s normal for people to put baits up to attract leopards, or lions, or hyenas to come to bait that brings them in reach of the client hunter. So, it was nothing unusual. But look: it’s not illegal to shoot a collared lions or a collared elephant, it was in a hunting area.


Werman: Sorry, why do they have a collar on them in the first place?


Johnstone: Well, the scientists in this case are tracking the movement of lions so we can learn something about their lives. But I think it’s rather overdone actually, where it borders the hunting area. They try to collar every single lion.


Werman: Well if the scientists are interested in these lions, why would it be legal to shoot any animal with a collar on them?


Johnstone: Well if it’s in a hunting area, you can’t necessarily see the collar. And any rate, if they do shoot it and hand in the collar, then it shows what’s happening to the lions, it’s all part of the management of these animals. This lion I believe was 13-years-old. Most lions, by the time they’re eight-years-old or so, they’ve either been killed by other male lions or by hyenas or taken by trophy hunters.


Werman: So are you basically saying that Cecil the lion’s time was up anyway?


Johnstone: Yeah, a long time ago. Years ago.


Werman: You’re saying that it was okay to kill Cecil the lion?


Johnstone: Yeah, it was in a hunting area.


Werman: So on your safaris, you allow killing lions?


Johnstone: No, I don’t have lions anymore. At one time, I was one of the biggest safari operators in Zimbabwe. But I’m mainly what they call plains game hunting now, things like zebra and sable and kudu and so on.


Werman: So, the dentist is blaming the guides. Is that right, in your view?


Johnstone: The dentist took a hunt with the professional hunting guide. Now, I’m not the investigation officer, so I can’t tell you what the situation was. I’m just appalled that the fuss has been built up over this lion being shot. It’s not doing this country any good, that bad publicity.


Werman: Yeah, so what do you make of the global outrage with this one lion?


Johnstone: Well, it shows that people don’t understand wildlife.


Werman: Yeah, what do we need to understand?


Johnstone: Let me give you a picture: the continent of Africa’s population of humans is increasing fantastically, and I promise you unless there’s a value to the wildlife and the people on the land that the wildlife is living on receive some value out of these wild animals, they’ll be swept away. One of the good ways of getting that money is hunting safaris, which the owners of the land, whether they’re communal or settlers or small farmers or big farmers--unless those people gain something from the wildlife… and I can tell you something, game viewing is not going to do it because nobody wants to go game viewing in scrubby bush or unlikely countryside or a countryside with too many people in it, where there’s hundreds that will go to these places. Unless the people that own the land have a value in the wildlife, it’s finished. We should be encouraging hunting, we shouldn’t be screaming and shouting against it.


Werman: But it seems the system, for some reason, is not working. You’ve got a lion that’s collared that should not be shot and is killed. Shouldn’t there be at least a moratorium on this kind of big game hunting until a system is in place where accidents like this don’t happen?


Johnstone: So, how do you know it’s collared or not? Can you see the collar?


Werman: A lot of people say that Walter Palmer should be prosecuted. What do you think?


Johnstone: Absolutely not, unless he was in cahoots with some illegal deal, and I don’t think there was an illegal deal. He came here as a tourist expecting to be on a hunt which was all legally set up. Why should he be prosecuted?


Werman: Peter Johnstone runs Rosslyn Safaris, located in the province of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe.