In late June/early July 2015, an American citizen with clearly more money than he knows what to do with, traveled to Africa to participate in a private hunting safari. With the help of professional hunter/guide Theo Bronkhorst, he managed to find his chosen prey, wound it, track it, kill it and bring it home as a trophy.
Though slightly on the visceral side, the incident was nothing unusual in wide swathes of sub-Saharan Africa. After all, such organized hunting safaris have been indulged in by members of Western privileged classes since the second half of the 19th century. Technological advances from more efficient guns through wheeled vehicles to today’s electronic tracking systems. Simply forking over sufficient money is enough to buy a ticket to go on safari, with all the inconvenience removed.
But this hunt was different: In a rare case of prey enjoying greater fame than human predator, the bagged animal was one known as Cecil the Lion. Not only was Cecil a subject of studies by the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit but the Southwest African lion was the single most popular attraction within Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe (among visitors with less bloody intent than Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, presumably). Worse yet, two park officials were reportedly bribed to issue Palmer and Bronkhorst permits; the news trail on the pair, with identities publicly withheld, disappears soon after briefs on their arrest.
The killing of Cecil the Lion – the event even has its own Wikipedia page – triggered outrage internationally, becoming a symbol for the out-of-control poaching currently resulting in the extinction or near-extinction of species on the continent.
Decadence of cross-continental sport hunting aside, the symbol of illegal hunting/poaching (on a mass scale, the two are essentially one and the same) in Africa is ivory. This luxury item serves as material for various baubles and accessories, trivial needs for which an entire ecosystem may soon be irrevocably changed for the worse. The statistics are shocking.
In terms of pachyderms, some 1.3 million elephants were alive in the African wild in 1979. After a decade in which an average 60,000 were killed per year, the elephant population was reducaed to under 600,000 by 1990. A quarter-century later, African elephant populations were suffering from a negative birth rate. Though in the mid-2010s, poaching was accounting for “only” 30,000 elephant deaths per year, the reduced killing was only due to the shrinking pool of the species itself. In Kenya, an elephant population of 160,000 has been reduced to 20,000 in fifty years; in Tanzania, approximately 13,000 elephants were killed annually between 2008 and ’12.
If the bigger picture is ignored, one can easily ascertain the reasons for the poaching and sport hunting safaris of animals. Ravaged by centuries of colonial activity and hampered by land relatively poor in natural resources, the people of sub-Saharan Africa are faced with hard realities against a 21st-century economic backdrop. What struggling human wouldn’t take advantage of the $1,000 per pound price at which ivory sells? (Particularly considering that upward 70% of the product in sold in China, an unflagging market.)
Or how about selling rhinoceros horn, a product whose only medicinal value has repeatedly been shown to be illusory, at a rate of $30,000 per pound? (For comparison’s sake, as of this writing, gold is selling at just over $16,000/lb.) And as of 2015, a live infant gorilla was worth up to $40,000 on the black market – to whom is another question altogether.
Despite heavy demand and human desperation, however, lawmakers are steadily increasing the seriousness with which illegal hunting/poaching of animals is treated. The overlying international law on the issue is known as the Washington Convention or The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which was enacted in July 1975. Nearly all member nations (and all African member nations except South Sudan) of the United Nations are bound by the convention, but its efficacy is obviously questionable.
With surprising foresight and action, the Washington Convention was modified in 1989 so as to ban all international sale of ivory – and one may easily observe how effective this law has proven, particularly given the technological sophistication with which expert poachers are today graced.
According to the African Wildlife Foundation, “The vast majority of poaching [in Africa] is caused by organized crime syndicates that use high-powered technology and weaponry to track and kill many animals at once without being detected.” Such skills were evidenced in a February 2012 massacre of over 300 elephants in Bouba N'Djida National Park, Cameroon.
In response, the WWF requested government intervention to assist in preventing further similar incidents in Cameroon. Clearly, the lesson learned since the Washington Convention is that concerned leadership in African nations address the problem directly, as they hold the only comparable resources to those in organized crime.
Such is the case in Kenya, the sole African nation to actually tangibly respond to the CITES measure of 1989. At that time, then-president Daniel arap Moi ordered the public burning of 12 tons of ivory on the advice of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) director Richard Leakey. Twenty-seven years later, the dramatic act had to be repeated.
Playing the main roles in a May 2016 reboot were President Uhuru Kenyatta and KWS Director-General Kitili Mbathi. To indicate just how massive the problem of hunting in Africa has become, this time out the stockpile of ivory burned was over 100 tons, a market value of $200 million. Alongside this public display of Kenyatta’s promise to end the ivory trade in his country was a few tons’ worth of rhino horn.
Time will tell if the Kenyan ivory burning of 2016 takes with the general public, but we can know this: In an ivory burning 27 years later, only the last remains of an extinct species will be incinerated.
Those opposed to the epidemic of illegal hunting in Africa must hope that Cecil the Lion’s death was not in vain, and the optimist may certainly see signs of change. By the end of 2015, for example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially added the West African lion to the endangered species list, thereby making the killing of said animals by US citizens illegal. Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle was quoted in the New York Times as stating that Cecil’s death had “changed the atmospherics on the issue of trophy hunting around the world. … I think it gave less wiggle room to regulators.”
After the initial social media-based outrage died down, Walter Palmer saw his life in the Minneapolis area return to normal. Two months after the kill, Palmer had returned to his dentistry practice; in October 2015, the Zimbabwe government announced no charges would be filed against Palmer, despite his lack of valid hunting permit while in the country.
And regardless of one’s opinion on Palmer’s jaunt hunting in Africa, one should note that complaints were filed against him within six months of his return to the ‘States regarding highly questionable practices on hunting grounds in Minnesota. As of this writing, Palmer has not been changed in connection with these complaints.
Sometimes there is no justice…