Daily Archives: 07/30/2015

Cecil the lion and the ethics of trophy hunting.

This article is not really about Cecil, but about the ethics of selling trophy hunt permits as a means of “promoting conservation”, from which Cecil was just one more victim.


I can’t express the feelings of anger, sadness and repulse that this whole story about the killing of Cecil the lion has triggered on me.  My gut feeling is that whoever was involved in this should be submitted to Sharia law and receive 1000 lashes every day. But then my rational side pulls me back to reality. How many more lions, rhinos, elephants, buffaloes, leopards, zebras and the lot are hunted every day  by tourists and poaching in Africa ? What are we doing to prevent  the Chinese to harvest the ivory and rhino horns for their vanity and stupid beliefs in Chinese “medicine”? The west needs to pay lip-service to China and governments just close their eyes.

How are we going to ask for justice for all these animals?

It is easier to become nauseated about Cecil because we can identify the individual perpetrator. It is more difficult when the victims and the perpetrators are incognitos.

Cecil, the victim, and his killers had a name. We are hard-wired to request justice for things we can identify. Entities with names, personalities, agency.  But when the agents are unknown, when the victims simply appear dead, killed by a ghost agent we have difficulty in directing our anger because we do not know who to direct it against. This is difficult to deal with because that anger just grows inside us without a scapegoat to blame.

But I think we could start by directing our anger against the consumers of such products, the politicians that allow such trade to continue and shake hands in secrecy with the powerful involved in this underground trade. Poaching only  happens as far as there are consumers. If people learnt that rhino horns are not effective and they have Viagra available, that Chinese “medicine” is bullshit and that hunting for trophies makes a case to pity the hunter, rather than to admire him, the world would be a better place. But this  requires investment in mass education!!!! This is expensive!  It is cheaper to ignore it!

When I was a member of the Wild-CRU, the Oxford group that was studying Cecil’s movements, we were asked to offer our opinion about hunting in Zimbabwe. David Macdonald asked us to seat around in a circle and asked us this question:

“The Zimbabwe government asked for our opinion about the implications of allowing game hunting as a source of income for the local populations. What advice do you think we should offer?”

The argument  presented by David was that  allowing for a hunting quota under strict regulations and control, would  bring wealth and development for local populations which in stead of poaching would value the wildlife around them. This argument is widespread among many conservationists and in a way it  sounds logical . It is a bit like the argument that asks to legalise brothels. But it is a slippery slope fallacy. The whole argument is based on the supposition that the money paid by tourists to kill selected animals, would revert back to the local populations and into conservation.

David Macdonald  reminded us that we were all biologists working in conservation and should prevent our emotions from interfering with evidence based rational decision making.

At the time I knew little about critical thinking and rational decision making and I simply offered opinions based on my emotions.  I had been always against hunting  and I didn’t agree with the premise that allowing sport hunting would ever be a good strategy to prevent poaching. In my opinion it would be just an add in to regular poaching. A legalised bonus. It would only perpetrate corruption and trickery under the pretence it was a legal hunt. Besides I did not believe that Zimbabwe would ever be able to enforce any rules or regulations, whatever strict they were considering their most recent history.

I asked several questions. Why didn’t they educate the population ? Couldn’t they invest in other  types of training rather than shooting game? Couldn’t they give them some IT education or  business skills?  Well it wasn’t up to us to define their educational policies. We just had to discuss the issue whether legalised hunt would be a good thing for conservation.

The group was asked to vote on what suggestions to offer the Zimbabwean Government and the option for controlled trophy hunting won by votes, “because after all we were all rational conservationist and scientists think with their head not with their heart!”.

There is a conflict between conservation and animal welfare, for the first concentrates on the health and balance of an ecosystem  as a whole with disregard for individuals, the second takes into consideration the suffering of each individual, ignoring what would be best for the environment as a whole.

Our emotions tell us that that culling  magnificent healthy animals is unacceptable, on the other hand we know that overpopulation of certain species can become plagues and very negative for the ecological equilibrium of the biotic communities.

At the time of that discussion I defended that killing animals for sport, did little for conservation. But some colleagues of mine argued that  killing the weakest animals would save them from suffering the slow agonising deaths that nature offered.

At the time I was naïve. I did not know anything about animal welfare, animals ethics, rational argumentation and did not have the necessary tools to make balanced decisions. We were mostly young PhD students and fresh PostDocs with our heads full of statistical models and scientific information.

David got the resolution that suited the Zimbabwean expectations which certainly granted permits allowing Wild CRU researchers to continue their exceptional research work on conservation.

The Wild-CRU is one of the groups in the UK that has produced research in conservation of the highest quality ad David Macdonald is a knowledgeable, honest and  rational scientist . Their studies have contributed to a better understanding of conservation dynamics  and animal behaviour in many different ecosystems. But such excellence comes with strings attached. It requires  a  leader  with very good political skills which can deal with God and the Devil and ensures that funding and permits are in place to support such expensive research.  Acquiring such level of knowledge doesn’t come cheap. Sometimes a leader is between a rock and a hard place and has to sell his soul to the devil for the good of science. I am sure David Macdonald would rather not see any animals killed, but he also understood that where there  was human interference in the natural balance of the ecosystem there was a need for human intervention to re-establish that balance.

Cecil is a victim of a conservationist policy which seats on three premises:

1. that  allowing trophy hunting is a source of wealth and economical development to local populations 2. that  populations would value their wildlife and refrain from poaching

3. that  teh money paid for the hunt reverts in favour of local conservation efforts

I just would like to know how much funding has reverted in favour of  what conservation projects from these legal trophy hunts?

I think that my opinions and fears expressed in that Wild-CRU meeting 20 years ago were confirmed in the killing of Cecil and this makes me wonder how many more were so killed that we don’t know about!

There is no way we can control trophy hunting with rules and regulations when this occurs in countries with disregard for any sort of rule of law. Where corruption is the main driving force of their economy. Animals will always be the victims of this corruption which is a cancer with metastases all over Africa and other developing countries. But we do not need to leave England to see the same attitude in relation to our wildlife. We just have to revisit the recent polemic about  reinstating fox hunting to serve the purposes of some privileged minority and realise that attempts for corruption are everywhere. After all, animals don’t offer testimony!

Yes I am a biologist, yes I had training in conservation and I should be rational and emotion free when dealing with conservation issues…but conservation without a heart is pure cold unethical engineering.

Botanists that work in forest conservation and need to cut down some trees for the sake of the ecosystem do not have to deal with the same emotional issues than zoologists do, especially those who deal with megafauna, sentient animals who have evolved brains with emotional expressions not different from those of  humans.

We know that in the Amazonian forest, ants are much more important to the whole ecosystem than one jaguar, but we are all ready to weep over the death of a  jaguar and ignore important role of the ants. This is just human empathic nature. Should we be blamed for feeling sorry for the jaguar?

To be consistent and coherent  any person who thinks that the culling of animals perceived as plagues or inconvenient to the “interests” of the ecosystem is as a good management strategy would have to accept the same to culling everything that is seen as having a negative impact in the environment. Like humans for example.

After all, we are all biologists and we should not look at our object of study with our hearts. Isn’t it what we’ve learnt?

We learnt that we need to control plagues by whatever means at our disposal. Humans are undoubtedly the worse plague ever to inhabit this planet. A species that is not older than 2 million years is doing more damage in one century than the  humble dinosaurs did on 150 million years. Seen from space, humans are that  malevolent species destroying the planet not only for themselves but also for for every other species. No wonder the aliens that land in Hollywood always come with the good  intention to exterminate us.

Then if humans are a plague, why not use the same methods to control them? Why not selling permits to cull humans in overpopulated areas? According to the same logic, it would bring wealth to local populations. Culling humans would bring so many benefits! Reduction in population density preventing spread of disease, it would reduce the stress on the ecosystem, it would reduce emissions, rubbish, pollution and  and free a lot of space for all the other creatures that share the planet with us.

Why not let  more American dentists and Chinese tycoons pay for hunting permits and let them shoot everything that is considered a plague or that brings wealth to the locals for that matter ? Why not befree the human population of the weakest individuals?  They would die of disease anyway! Ebola, AIDS…Applying the same logic as to animals, we are just sparing them from painful deaths that  otherwise would be brought in by natural processes.

For those who don’t understand sarcasm I need to clarify that  I am NOT advocating the culling of humans and this is an argument by analogy. If your gut feeling tells you that culling humans is not acceptable, think of the reasons why. Then think if the same reasons apply to sentient animals. If they do, you have the answer for teh question: why is he selling of permits to kill wildlife (as a plague control or a source of economical development) not morally acceptable?

What applies to one species  should also apply to all the others that exert the same unwanted stresses over the environment.

If you want to be consistent either you cull the humans and the other animals or you cull none of them and let nature perform its act as it was meant to be.

But who cares about consistency?