If you fly over parts of Tsavo today—and I challenge anyone to do so, if you have the eyes for it – you can see lines of snares set out in funnel traps that extend four or five miles. Tens of thousands of animals are being killed annually for the meat business. Carnivores are being decimated in the same snares and discarded. I am not a propagandist on this issue, but when my friends say we are very concerned that hunting will be reintroduced in Kenya, let me put it to you: hunting has never been stopped in Kenya, and there is more hunting in Kenya today than at any time since independence. (Thousands) of animals are being killed annually with no control. Snaring, poisoning, and shooting are common things. So when you have a fear of debate about hunting, please don’t think there is no hunting. Think of a policy to regulate it, so that we can make it sustainable. That is surely the issue, because an illegal crop, an illegal market is unsustainable in the long term, whatever it is. And the market in wildlife meat is unsustainable as currently practiced, and something needs to be done.
-Richard Leakey, in an address to the Strathmore Business School, Nairobi
Richard Leakey, of course, is the renowned paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and the first director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, the man who was in large part responsible for scotching the ivory trade during the initial round of the Elephant Wars in the 1980s.
I interviewed Leakey a few years ago for my book, Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife (University of California Press, 2012). His words came back to me with the brouhaha over the shooting of Cecil, the most lionized lion on the planet. So did the words of many of the other people I interviewed for the book. That includes Ian Parker, a legendary Kenyan game ranger and warden; Michael Norton-Griffiths, who served as the senior ecologist for Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and managed the Eastern Sahel Program for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; Ole Kaparo, a former speaker of the Kenyan Parliament and a leader of the Laikipia Maasai people; and Laurence Frank, an emeritus associate of UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Biology and one of Africa’s most respected carnivore biologists.
All these men no doubt are upset to varying degrees by l’affaire Cecil—but not for reasons one may think. They’re probably more distressed by the response to the shooting than the shooting itself. That’s because the uproar over Cecil, the fervent calls for expanding the bans on trophy hunting in Africa, will work against African wildlife conservation in general and carnivore conservation in particular.
As Leakey points out, regulated hunting—even poorly regulated hunting, as seems the case with Cecil in Zimbabwe—isn’t the driving force in the decline of the African lion, which has fallen from a continental population of around 200,000 to fewer than 20,000 today. Unregulated hunting is the main culprit: Industrial-scale poaching and bushmeat hunting. Ancillary reasons include the inexorable expansion of agriculture and the increasing populations of pastoral peoples, who inhabit their ancestral rangelands in ever-increasing numbers, spearing or poisoning any predator that could pose a threat to their cattle and goats. And it’s also the booming illegal trade in wildlife parts. More than one field biologist I talked to told me how wild animals—particularly predators, rhinos, and elephants—are disappearing in proportion to the rapid expansion of Chinese-funded development projects. Ivory and rhino horn, of course, remain highly prized in China, and lion bone is considered an “acceptable” substitute for tiger bone in traditional Asian medicine; lion and leopard claws and teeth also are much sought after.
But ultimately, wild animals are disappearing in Africa because they are worthless to the people who live with and near them. Kenya’s hunting ban has been in effect since 1977. During that time, the country’s wildlife has declined by more than 70 percent. The country’s subsistence farmers and pastoralists can derive no legitimate utility from the animals. Indeed, wildlife makes their lives harder. Elephants raid their crops, destroy their water systems, stomp cattle and the occasional farmer. Lions, hyenas, and leopards kill their livestock. Better to shoot the elephant and poison the lion. An African savannah devoid of lumbering pachyderms and lolling lions may make a New York animal rights activist weep, but to a Samburu pastoralist or Kikuyu subsistence farmer it constitutes a lovely prospect, one promising peaceful nights uninterrupted by the trumpeting of elephants raiding the pumpkin patch or the squeals of goats enduring evisceration by hungry lions.
But what about eco-tourism? Why hasn’t that helped? Don’t the eco-lodges sprouting across Kenya like mushrooms after the Long Rains deliver cash, goods, and services to local communities? Aren’t they a very good thing? In a word, no. First, these lodges constitute permanent physical footprints on the wild landscape. They require roads and other infrastructure, and thus fragment wildlife habitat. Locals tend to congregate around them, driving game further afield.
Further, many of the lodges are owned by foreign entrepreneurs and corporations, and the profits tend to trickle up to their proprietors and Kenya’s deeply corrupt oligarchs, not down to the poor farmers and herdsmen on the land.
Michael Norton-Griffiths observes the situation is analogous to a man whose only asset is a goat. But this particular goat comes with many strings attached. The man owns the goat, but he can’t sell it or eat it. In fact, he can’t “exploit” the goat in anyway. The only thing he’s allowed to do is let tourists drive by and take pictures of it. Oh, one more thing: he doesn’t get any money from photo-snapping goat enthusiasts. All profits go to the guys driving the tourist buses. Kenya’s rural residents, in other words, are responsible for the country’s wildlife, but they aren’t allowed to benefit from it.
In any evaluation of Africa’s wildlife crisis, Namibia must be considered. That’s because there isn’t a wildlife crisis in Namibia. At the time of its independence from South Africa in 1990, Namibia’s game populations were at historic lows, decimated by years of combat between locals and the South African army. The new government wanted to encourage both a wildlife rebound and tourism, but it took a tack directly opposite from Kenya’s. Rural populations were organized into communities controlling vast areas of land. Where necessary, the wildlands were restocked with game. Each community was invested with the right to manage its own wildlife resources, subject to certain broad dictates from Namibian national wildlife agencies. In other words, game was commoditized. It could be cropped for commercial meat production; it could be eaten by community members; the rights to hunt trophy specimens of charismatic species could be sold. Suddenly, wildlife had great value for people living in the Namibian bush, and they reacted predictably: They protected their assets.
I saw this dynamic in action at Salambala Conservancy in Caprivi, a lush northern Namibian province watered by the Okavango and Zambezi Rivers. A holding of the Subia people, Salambala is “small” by Namibian conservancy standards, but still vast by any objective accounting: 230,000 acres. The community and the central government have established sustainable annual quotas for almost every species inhabiting the land, right down to game birds: 50 impala, seven African buffalo, fifty zebras, four kudus, four waterbucks, four hippos, three crocodiles, three baboons, two black-backed jackals, 100 white-faced ducks, 150 turtle doves, 50 guinea fowl, and 70 red-billed francolins. The quota for elephants is eight, with six going to trophy hunters, one dedicated to the community’s chief and elders, and one reserved for distribution among conservancy members. (Lions are still relatively rare in Namibia, though their reintroduction proceeds in certain areas. One reason Namibia remains Africa’s cheetah stronghold is the dearth of lions, which reflexively kill the smaller cats; where lions are prevalent, cheetahs, axiomatically, are scarce. Cheetahs, by the way, are also included in the trophy quota of some community conservancies.)
The community keeps all income generated from trophy hunters and meat sales. Prior to independence and the establishment of Salambala, any Subia community member who poached an animal likely would have met with praise; his act would’ve meant meat for family, friends and neighbors. Now, the illegal taking of game is considered a major offense, theft from the community as a whole. Shortly before my arrival, the remains of a blue wildebeest had been found, and local administrators quickly determined that a community member was responsible for the killing. They cheerfully predicted he would soon be apprehended, beaten severely, and handed over to government authorities for additional punishment.
Ultimately, then, the African wildlife crisis is a crisis of misperception. Conservation has been subsumed by animal rights. These are not, however, the same things. Individual animals—most recently Cecil and Jericho—have become more important in the Age of Social Media than species stability, habitat preservation, and pragmatic if uncomfortable policies that would actually encourage the preservation of wildlife. This is understandable: It’s easier to scream in outrage over the killing of a highly charismatic lion with a cute name, sign a Change.org petition, and move on to posting selfies, than it is to actually investigate the deep forces behind the African wildlife holocaust. But emoting over Cecil isn’t going to save the African lion. The African lion is not the Lion King, just as Daffy Duck is not representative of a typical mallard in a North American marsh. We don’t live in a cartoon, and our problems are not solved by anthropomorphizing wildlife. Blanket trophy hunting bans may make us feel better, but they will only accelerate the slaughter.
One in a series of personal Perspectives. We invite writers and readers to submit their own essays—inspiration can come from California magazine or California Magazine Online stories, the news, or issues of the day. Read more: