On Cecil the lion, and whether trophy hunting really does help conserve the species

Trophy hunters like to make the claim that people who are against the practice are against it for emotional, subjective, naive reasons. Trophy hunting brings in huge amounts of money, all of which is most generously donated to wildlife and local communities. The lions hunted are very carefully selected, such is the concern for conservation. Anyone who actually knows anything about anything would be pro-hunting.

Without the sarcasm, the argument is this: hunters bring in a lot of money, which can be used for conservation, but also for local communities. This then creates a positive view of wildlife that would otherwise range from being simple pests, to being incredibly dangerous. With quotas and regulations, hunting can positively affect populations and gene pools, thus contributing to the conservation of the species. Furthermore, hunters will pay to go to areas that are more difficult, and less photogenic. These areas do not receive money from other tourism, and so would either be developed on, or farmed on. As this would hurt all wildlife, hunting is saving it.

Except that this is just so blatantly not how it occurs in reality.

The Niassa Carnivore Project in Namibia, for example, state on their website:

“sport hunting of lions can be sustainable if lions taken as trophies are at least six years old, as these males are generally not pride males and have already raised a litter of cubs.” (Niassa Carnivore Project, 2013, para. 1)

A study in Hwange national park, Zimbabwe (Cecil’s home), between 1999 and 2004, found that more than 30% of male lions shot by hunters were sub-adult (with a mean age of 3.2 years), while the mean age of all male lions shot was 5.2 years (Loveridge, Searle, Murindagomo, & Macdonald, 2007). This is particularly disturbing as they found that in their study area male lions reached sexual and physical maturity “at around 6 to 7 years of age” (Loveridge et al., 2007).

Packer et al. (1988) showed that maximum reproductive success for male lions was reached between 7 and 8 years, and that at this age males are 50% more successful with regards to surviving offspring than those that were either younger or older.

Whitman, Starfield, Quadling and Packer (2004) proposed that it was possible to accurately age a male lion by observing the colour of its nose, again claiming that a lion over the age of 6 will have reproduced and raised a litter of cubs. If 50% or more of the nose is black in colour then the lion is 5 years old or older (Whitman et al., 2004). This would, supposedly, reduce the impact on the pride when a male was killed by allowing only males beyond their prime to be removed by hunters. But a study undertaken by Nicholls, Ward and Kat (n.d.) in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, found the fallacy in this. They were unable to find any correlation between the age of a lion and the darkness of its nose. Explaining why the study by Whitman et al. (2004) was refutable, they made reference to the fact that, while there were a large number of lions in the study, only a small fraction were males over the age of 5 years. Since the argument of regulating hunting by age is used with identifying male lions that are potential trophies, the fact that Whitman et al’s. (2004) correlation was established using mostly female lions further discredits the nose-colour theory.

Sachedina (2008) reports that, in an interview with a village official in northern Tanzania, he was told that the local people ally themselves much more with photographic operators than they do with hunting operators. They felt that the hunters didn’t recognise them and where they are “supposed to get 5 percent [of the revenue from hunting]: we don’t even see that” (Sachedina, 2008). Economists At Large (2013) published a report on the economic significance of the trophy hunting industry and noted that, while Rudolph and Hosmer (2011) quoted revenue generation per year at $200 million, half of this estimate is based on an unpublished study by the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, and that in many other countries the estimates are made from personal communications with unverifiable sources, such as safari companies.

Trophy hunting has been around an awful long time, and for that entire time lions have been the most prized trophy of all. If hunting lions is conservation, then it is the longest running conservation project that I know of, and, given the current state of lion populations, a somewhat unsuccessful one.

So why does it matter that Cecil is dead, seeing as that is only minus-one lion of many, and an old one at that? Leaving aside any illegality and corruption involved, the ecological point is this:

One dead pride-male =

– Cubs below 18 months will be killed during a takeover by a new male, hindering population growth and wiping out a genetically unique generation that would have added to the variety that any healthy population needs.

– If any of those cubs had been males, they would have eventually been kicked out of the pride to (potentially) reproduce elsewhere, contributing to gene flow. This will no longer happen.

– If this situation happened in a pride with male cubs approaching sexual maturity, but who had not yet been kicked out, it would provide said cubs with an opening within their own pride, leading to inbreeding.

– Adult and sub-adult females may also die in a takeover, if they resist the new male/s.

High male turnover caused by trophy hunting means more infanticide and inferior males. Any new male/s have thus far been unable to takeover Cecil’s pride, suggesting that he was still healthy, strong and fit. Now Cecil has been removed unnaturally, inferior males have an opportunity to breed that was not there before, resulting in cubs genetically inferior to Cecil’s. Given that trophy hunters go for the most impressive males, it is even more likely that the successor will be inferior.

It seems reasonable to say that to deliberately reduce the lion population, choosing to take individuals with the highest fitness, thus causing the greatest negative domino effect possible, and to flaunt regulations by knowingly taking part in the rank corruption that is rife in many of these areas, whilst maintaining a complete indifference as to who and what and where your money goes to, is not an ideal approach to lion conservation.

If hunters wish, in the name of conservation, to only take male lions that have had the opportunity to reproduce, in order to have a positive impact on the species, then they need to shoot nomad males of at least 9 years, not the 6 years that so many hunters proclaim to be conservation-friendly. Cecil may have been 13 years old, but he led TWO prides, with a number of cubs – you cannot simply go by age. But, as the trophy hunting of lions by definition seeks out the fittest, most physically fit males (hence the title of trophy), hunters are unlikely to ever practice in a truly sustainable way, knowing full well that an accurate, sustainable age limit on the males they take will result in them having to present the heads of toothless, dilapidated lions on their walls.

I have spent the last 6 years reading on and learning about the subject, giving considerable and genuine time to the pro-hunting argument. I wanted to understand it fully, and to be for it if it convinced me that it was helping conserve lions. I am not against the trophy hunting of lions because I’m naive, or stupid, or emotional, or because I grew up on Disney films and don’t understand how the real world works. I am against it because trophy hunting, among other things, is contributing to the destruction of lion populations, and making it increasingly unlikely that they will ever recover. One day it may be possible to have a sustainable, ethical trophy hunting industry that actually helps conserve species. Right now, with lions, it needs to stop.


Economists at large. (2013). The $200 million dollar question: how much does trophy hunting really contribute to African communities? Melbourne: Economists At Large Ltd.

Loveridge, A. J., Searle, A. W., Murindagomo, F., & Macdonald, D. W. (2007). The impact of sport-hunting on the population dynamics of an African lion population in a protected area. Biological Conservation, 134, 548-558.

Niassa Carnivore Project. (2013). Sport hunting. Retrieved 29 July, 2015, from http://www.rateltrust.org/sport-hunting.php

Nicholls, K., Ward, J. L., & Kat, P. (n.d.). African lion trophy hunting policy can not be based on a site-specific model. Retrieved from https://www.lionaid.org/download/African-Lion-Trophy-Hunting-Nose-Colour-Ward-Kat-Article.pdf

Packer, C., Herbst, L., Pusey, A., Bygott, J.D., Hanby, J.P., Cairns, S.J., Mulder, M.B., (1988). Reproductive success of lions. In: Clutton- Brock, T.H. (Ed.), Reproductive success: studies of individual variation in contrasting breeding systems. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 363–383.

Rudolph, L., Hosmer, J. (2011). Why being hunted is good for Africa’s lions. Daily Caller. Retrieved from http://dailycaller.com/2011/03/04/why–‐being–‐hunted–‐is–‐good–‐for–‐africas–‐lions/

Sachedina, H.T. (2008). Wildlife is our oil : conservation, livelihoods and NGOs in the Tarangire ecosystem, Tanzania. Word Journal Of The International Linguistic Association. University Of Oxford. Retrieved from http://african–‐environments.ouce.ox.ac.uk/pdf/sachedina_dphil.pdf.

Whitman, K., Starfield, A. M., Quadling, H. S. & Packer, C. (2004). Sustainable trophy hunting of African lions. Nature, 428, 175-178

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