Oxford University professor who studied Cecil says strictly regulated hunting could help stop destruction of lion habitats

Cecil the Lion Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. (Photograph: Sean Herbert/AP November 2013)
Cecil the Lion Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. (Photograph: Sean Herbert/AP November 2013)

The Guardian reported last week on a new report by Professor David Macdonald, a scientist at Oxford University who studied Cecil the Lion years before the animal was killed by an American dentist. According to Macdonald, trophy hunting could help conserve lions.

In his report for UK ministers, Macdonald concluded that strictly regulated hunting of lions could provide a financial incentive to protect areas of wild lion habitat from being destroyed, which is the biggest threat to the big cats. But he also stated the UK should ban the import of any lion trophies from hunts that failed to prove their sustainability.

The number of African lions left in the wild has plummeted in the last century and they have disappeared from more than 90% of their historic range. Just 20,000 individuals remain, fewer than the number of rhinos in Africa.

The killing of Cecil the Lion in 2015 took place in contravention of Zimbabwe national park rules but criminal charges have since been dropped against those involved. Macdonald said in June that Cecil’s killing was “heartbreaking.”

However, his new report, found there was little evidence that trophy hunting of lions harmed populations on regional or national levels, although it could do so at local levels.

“The big issue here is lion conservation and how it can realistically be achieved. Whether or not I personally like lion hunting is irrelevant,” he said.

“It is unfathomable to me that there could be joy in killing them, but for me the priority is halting, indeed reversing, their decline. Currently the evidence is that trophy hunting contributes to keeping hundreds of thousands of square kilometers available to lions and other wildlife.”

Macdonald said asking whether trophy hunting has the potential to help conservation is a very different question to asking whether it is ethically acceptable. “Of course I understand if people say there are simply no circumstances under which this will be acceptable to me,” he said.

“If so, then they have to look for a mechanism of replacing it with something that is acceptable,” Macdonald said. “That might be people putting their money where their mouth is, buying out the hunting interest and replacing it with some sort of international payment for conservation.”

Macdonald’s analysis reports that areas for trophy hunting of all animals cover 1.4m sq km in Africa, 22% more land than national parks. He said it would not be possible to convert all of this to safari-based eco-tourism, as some people advocate as an alternative to hunting.
Lions are hunted over an area of 500,000 sq km, the report found, representing about a third of the land where lions occur.

Trophy hunting is estimated to raise more than $200 million a year across sub-Saharan Africa, with lion hunting probably accounting for 5-17% of that, depending on the country. About 450 lion trophies are exported each year, according to data from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora, though some of these may be heads, teeth or skins from the same animal.

The report recommends that all hunts are overseen by expert and transparent committees that can assess the lion population and set quotas that would ensure the population is not harmed and, ideally, grows. It also said that regulations should ensure a significant amount of the money raised is used for conservation and that only accredited hunters should be used, to reduce the suffering of animals. Macdonald said some lion hunts were well managed, such as in Zimbabwe.

In response to the study Jeffrey Flocken with the International Fund for Animal Welfare stated: “Many of the recommendations, if implemented, would prove that the hunting industry has dictated policy based on inflated economic arguments. With trophy hunted species like lion and elephant populations crashing, we can no longer allow the killing of imperiled species for fun, based on blind faith that it’s for their own good.”

Link to Report on Lion Conservation with Particular Respect to the Issue of Trophy Hunting, David W. Macdonald
Link to Lion Conserveration and Trophy Hunting Report Appendices, Macdonald et al
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On December 6, 2016, David Macdonald addressed questions arising from his Report on Lion Conservation available at: WildCru
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See also: New research reveals extent of human threat to lion populations

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