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Cecil the lion’s death is part of a much larger problem

Effective wildlife conservation is a challenge worldwide. Only a small percentage of the earth’s surface is park, reserve, or related areas designated for the protection of wild animals, marine life, and plants. Virtually all protected areas are smaller than what conservationists believe is needed to ensure species’ survival, and many of these areas suffer from a shortage of staff with sufficient pay, training, and equipment to do their jobs well. How can rangers carry out regular patrols when their vehicles are in disrepair or their budget has insufficient funds to obtain fuel for them?

There are also challenges that protected area staff have with the people living near parks and reserves. Often the positive aspects of protecting species accrue largely to the tourists that enjoy the spaces and the national coffers that benefit from gate entry fees. In contrast, local community members are likely to have their crops destroyed and family members injured by animals that leave the unfenced protected sites in search of living space or an easy meal. Community programs are increasingly being put in place to improve the strained relationships between local people and protected areas, but such programs rarely have sufficiently robust budgets to enable the benefits that wildlife conservation should bring to outweigh the costs suffered from work days lost to injuries, the loss of loved ones, and property and crop damage. “Good relations” with local community members may involve protected area staff turning a blind eye to illegal activities or allowing such activities to occur in exchange for some of the fish and game meat that is poached.

Poachers include criminal crews that work to supply markets in Asia with rhino horn and ivory, and ordinary people who once lived in what are now protected areas, but who have not found alternative means by which to make a living wage or feed their families. In some countries, licensed and unlicensed big game hunters also enter protected areas in the hopes of securing trophies.

Zimbabwe, which gained its independence from Britain in 1980, was one of the first countries in the world to try to actively address the many difficulties that the formal protection of wildlife often causes local people. In the late 1980s, it created the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) program. CAMPFIRE has become a model for other countries in Africa and beyond, but also has generated some controversy. CAMPFIRE was created based on the notion that subsistence farmers, fishers, and herders have been the primary losers, especially in poorer countries, when formal parks and reserves are created using the “Yellowstone model.” The Yellowstone model is the main way in which protected areas have been created worldwide since the park it was named for was established in 1872 in the United States. Under the Yellowstone model, local people are displaced, with no or inadequate compensation for loss of access to resources, to create spaces exclusively for wildlife. In the CAMPFIRE program, communal areas are designated in which local people are granted a certain degree of land rights and encouraged to sustainably exploit the animals, plants, and waterways with which they share the lands.

Cecil the lion died on 1 July 2015 after being lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe by a recreational big game hunter from the United States. (Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park in 2010. Photo by Daughter#3. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.
Cecil the lion died on 1 July 2015 after being lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe by a recreational big game hunter from the United States. (Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park in 2010. Photo by Daughter#3. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.)

Although hunting licenses for big game are one way for local people in some areas to obtain a degree of benefit from wildlife protection, as Cecil the lion’s death at the hands of an American visitor to Zimbabwe has dramatically and tragically illustrated, obtaining a license may not guarantee a legal hunt. Even a call for an end to big game hunting could harm wildlife more than help it because funds from hunting licenses support conservation initiatives, including habitat protection. Habitat loss is a greater threat to most species than hunting, legal or otherwise.

There is no “one size fits all” response that can be expected to protect species across large areas. A hunting ban has been in place in Kenya for decades. Yet, the ban has only slowed illegal hunting practices, not eliminated them. Kenya has ongoing struggles with elephant poaching due to continued high demand for ivory, largely from Asian countries and especially China. African elephants are threatened, not endangered, and African countries with somewhat larger elephant populations still cull (legally kill) them.

Between 1966 and 1994, more than 16,000 elephants were culled in Kruger National Park in South Africa and some of the meat was canned and sold. Kruger is a premier park, South Africa’s largest, and one of the oldest on the continent, yet the elephant population there at times was deemed too large for the environment to support. “Excess” elephants cannot simply be transported to other areas, due to elephant family structure and the fact that younger elephants without proper guardianship have been found to develop severe behavioral problems, including aggression against other species.

Endangered rhinos are killed illegally to meet demand for their horns, which are used in parts of Asia for medicinal practices lacking scientific support. Efforts to protect rhinos by removing their horns to make them worthless to poachers, as has been undertaken in Namibia and elsewhere in southern Africa, has not put an end to rhino killings; often the animals are shot when they are in dense brush where their lack of horns is not evident until after the rhinos have already been needlessly killed. The consequences of ineffective protection can be permanent. The Western Black Rhinoceros was declared extinct in 2011 and the Northern White Rhinoceros population is believed to have only five members remaining.

Wildlife monitoring programs can help animal populations, but require a long-term commitment, considerable funding, and expertise. Cecil the lion was part of a long-term study by a research team from the University of Oxford, but this fact apparently was not known by the hunter who shot and killed him. Cecil’s death may lead to increased infighting among remaining larger male lions seeking to assert their dominance. Additionally, there may be multiple unanticipated changes within Hwange National Park’s wildlife community.

Although the deaths of ‘charismatic’ species such as lions make the headlines, poaching occurs across a wide range of wildlife species. The effective conservation of Africa’s wildlife is complex. It includes addressing non-Africans’ demand for wildlife products, strained community relations, gaps in research, monitoring, and enforcement, and, perhaps most importantly, the insufficient education of the general public on these issues.

Recent Comments

  1. Aborisade Adetola

    Nice Piece Prof,
    However I later got stuck on not placing ban on Game Hunting as its generate income, which I want to believe that some smart players can leverage on it to poaching.

    Or it there any clear cut difference between Poaching and not placing ban on Big Game Hunting.

    On another note, its there any study on Sambiza forest, the present day host to the derange terrorist in Nigeria (Boko Haram) on ecotourism in boasting internal generated income

    Aborisade Adetola

  2. Heidi G. Frontani

    Aborisade Adetola,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m suggesting that new potential problems arise when bans are implemented. Often the ‘quick fix’ solution winds up not working out exactly as planned. All systems are open to abuse.

    I can’t speak specifically to what is going on in Sambisa.

    Heidi Frontani

  3. Jessica Lavelle

    While reference has been made to specific management options for conservation, no mention was made of how to address the underlying socio-economic issues that are the drivers of habitat loss, poaching and unsustainable use of natural resources. It is only through increased dialogue across disciplines that novel solutions to such social-ecological problems can be developed.

  4. Heidi G. Frontani

    Without a doubt, socio-economic issues do drive much of the poaching, habitat loss, and unsustainable use of natural resources in Africa and elsewhere. I am not suggesting otherwise. -H. Frontani

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