The Cecil Effect: Does Conservation Have a Place Above Our Mantelpiece?

In 2015, Cecil the lion was killed by American trophy hunter Walter Palmer, in Bubye Valley Conservancy, Zimbabwe (Figure 1). There was an international outcry that such a magnificent beast should be slaughtered for sport. But there are many who see trophy hunting as a valuable conservation tool. How could that be? Isn’t conservation about keeping animals alive? Well yes, of course. But what if the killing of one individual can provide the funds to protect 50? This is the argument supporting the use of trophy hunting in conservation. People will pay tens of thousands of dollars to kill an animal for a trophy. This is a staggering amount of money for a relatively small loss, one that conservation charities would give an arm or a leg for (that would presumably then be mounted on a wall somewhere).


Figure 1. Left is Cecil the lion in Hwange National Park in 2013. Right is Cecil after being hunted by Walter Palmer (left). Credit: Sean Herbert/ AP;

A variety of species are targeted, with many African countries allowing trophy hunting within their borders (Figure 2). There are two sides to this controversial topic: one abhors the killing of a defenceless animal purely for sport, the other is the desire of a nation to generate an income with which to fund the bigger picture.

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Figure 2. The number of animals hunted in various African countries per year up to 2007. Credit: Science Direct/ The Independent/ Statista.

Arguments For

The money. Great. Ok. Let’s move on.

But seriously, vast amounts of money are generated for a relatively small sacrifice. Cecil died for $50,000. In South Africa, a rhino will sell for $12,250, an elephant $38,000 or a hippo $7,950 [1]. That’s $110,000 for four individuals. This could fund six Zimbabwean students to study conservation at Oxford University for a year, 60 satellite collars, and could keep an anti-poaching unit (4 rangers and 1 driver with supplies and fuel) on patrol for 1375 days [2, 3]. Faced with this perspective, it’s difficult to argue against the practice. There’s a yearning deep inside, “but it’s a living creature!”, “it’s just murder!”. Maybe, but sentiment doesn’t provide cash into the conservation funds of a government (whether these funds translate into conservation is an argument for another blog).

Many species are sometimes controlled via culling. Culling is often a last resort and is used to alleviate overpopulation pressures, such as human-wildlife conflict and habitat degradation by overgrazing. It also stops prey numbers from plummeting, which would otherwise kill predators like lions via starvation and disease, a fate much less humane than culling. Bubye Valley Conservancy has said that it may have to cull up to 200 lions as a result of hunters being scared off after the outcry over Cecil’s death. Shouldn’t we secure conservation funds from an animal’s death if they’re going to be culled anyway?

Arguments Against

For many, marrying trophy hunting with conservation just doesn’t fly; they are irreconcilable and one cannot serve the other without contradicting all that conservation stands for. Do animals live to entertain Homo sapiens? Maybe a ban on trophy hunting would end this myth. Many hunters are not skilled enough to shoot an animal directly in the heart, or between the eyes, and animals are often tracked down by the blood trails they leave behind. This suggests the animal experiences both physical and emotional suffering.

Animal behaviour also responds to hunting. Lions are incredibly territorial, with males defending their pride from potential usurpers. Upon the death of an alpha male, something called the perturbation effect takes place. Males within the established coalition are often killed, along with any cubs, by an incoming coalition of males [2]. These effects can reach to neighbouring prides, with an observed influence on sex-specific distribution [4].

Elephants have been observed grieving for deceased family members (Figure 3). They stroke the bones of dead relatives and bury them under leaves, visiting the same site in the future and chasing scavengers away from the remains. They have the ability to express empathy [5] and have been observed solving complex problems. Elephants are intelligent creatures and the trauma of a hunt within their family will linger for years. Not only will individuals grieve, but areas of previous trauma will be shunned, regardless of how suitable that habitat is.

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Figure 3. Elephants displaying grieving behaviour, stopping to touch the bones of deceased family members. Credit:

Do We Continue Hunting?

Trophy hunting is a regulated business. Permits and licenses are required from all parties. For lions, individuals are only hunted above a certain age (so that they have a chance to reproduce) and government quotas keep populations sustainable. As seen with the killing of Cecil, this is a system open to abuse. In a recent report, Prof David Macdonald, one of the lead researchers who followed Cecil, said that if managed properly trophy hunting can be a viable conservation tool. He states:

“Currently the evidence is that trophy hunting contributes to keeping hundreds of thousands of square kilometres available to lions and other wildlife.”

He says that this is irrespective of his feelings towards the killing of individuals, but that practically it can generate revenue. This reflects the government of Zambia’s decision to reverse its 2013 ban on trophy hunting after it’s conservation funds ran dry.

Approximately $200 million dollars is said to be generated each year by trophy hunting, but as seen in Figure 4 only a small portion makes its way back to the local communities who live in the areas where it takes place. These communities are pivotal in whether hunting can truly help to conserve animals. When white rhino hunting was legalised in South Africa, numbers rose from under 100 to over 10,000, because local communities were incentivised to protect the animals. Land owners put conservation measures in place to increase numbers. The reasons may seem selfish, but should we care if it means species protection?

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Figure 4. How the income generated through trophy hunting is distributed back into conservation efforts. Credit: Economists at Large/ Forbes/ Statista.

Conservation is different for every species. It can be incredibly complex, especially in Africa where funds are often low and effective management difficult to maintain. With proper management, can trophy hunting help to conserve animals? Professor David Macdonald thinks so. But even if it can achieve conservation success, is it the right thing to do? Do we accept the practical, unethical strategy? Or do we aspire to follow a stricter moral compass and believe that we can create a better alternative for the conservation of life on this planet?


  1. African Sky. (2016). African Sky Hunting: Price List South Africa. Retrieved on 29/11/2016 from
  2. WildCru. (2016). Cecil and the Conservation of Lions. Retrieved on 29/11/2016 from
  3. AFC. (2016). African Conservation Foundation: Donate Now. Retrieved on 29/11/2016 from
  4. Davidson, Z. Valeix, M. Loveridge, A. J. Madzikanda, H. Macdonald, D. W. (2011). Socio-spatial behaviour of an African lion population following perturbation by sport hunting. Biological Conservation, 144: 114-121.
  5. Bates, L. A. Lee, P. C. NJIraini, N. Poole, J. H. Sayialel, K. Sayialel, S. Moss, C. J. Byrne, R. W. (2008). Do Elephants Show Empathy? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 15 (10-11): 204-225.

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