One Year After Cecil’s Death, Lions Face Bigger Threats Than Hunting

Progress has been made against trophy hunting, but the bushmeat trade is wiping out lions’ prey.

cecil the lionCecil the lion at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. (Photo: Villiers Steyn/Getty Images)
John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American,ConservationLion, and other publications.

It was the shot heard around the world. On July 1, 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer earned global notoriety after he hunted and illegally killed Zimbabwe’s famous Cecil the lion.

The worldwide media attention and outrage triggered by Cecil’s death helped raise awareness of the plight of lions, which face an uncertain future despite their iconic nature. Today an estimated 20,000 lions remain in all of Africa—down from half a million 200 years ago—and research suggests the number could be halved in another 20 years

The precipitous decline had mostly gone unnoticed by the world before Cecil. “Cecil’s legacy is the massive attention it raised to the lions’ plight across Africa,” said Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, the big-cat conservation organization. “That, to me, was a real sea-change moment.”

Hunter said lions were “off the conservation radar” before Cecil because the big cats are most visible in the few places where they are doing well: highly protected areas such as the African parks and safaris that are popular with tourists from around the world. “I think that created this perception that lions were not really in a dire conservation need,” he said. “But it actually turns out that they are.”

That’s starting to change, thanks to Cecil, and conservationists say the increased awareness has been a benefit to lions in a few small ways. “I think that Cecil has shone a very, very bright spotlight on the murky world of the trophy-hunting industry,” said Pieter Kat, director of LionAid. He pointed to a recent report by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives that found that trophy hunting offers little to no conservation value, and also to the fact that dozens of airlines have banned shipments of wildlife trophies in the wake of Cecil’s death.

Cecil also appears to have played a role in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s move toadd lions to the endangered species list earlier this year, which included the imposition of strict rules on the import of lion trophies into the country. “That was initiated many years prior to Cecil’s death,” said Hunter, who thinks the enormous public outcry over the famous feline accelerated efforts to protect lions under the Endangered Species Act.

But have these positive steps helped lions? The answer appears to be no. “The reality is that very little has changed,” Hunter said. “Trophy hunting hasn’t been banned anywhere in Africa as a result of the Cecil furor, and no fewer lions are legally trophy hunted as a result of Cecil.” He calls the steps taken by governments in countries including Australia and the Netherlands to ban trophy imports “token efforts” that have had little impact.

Trophy hunting, meanwhile, is probably the least of the lions’ worry. According to a report issued Thursday by Panthera and WildAid, legal trophy hunting only kills about 220 to 240 wild lions a year. As many as 10 times more die from snares set for the bushmeat trade and other dangers, including retaliatory strikes by humans over lions’ perceived threat to livestock.

The bushmeat trade, Hunter explained, has become a giant industry that supplies illegal wild meat to African cities and consumers around the globe. “The way to profit is just to catch as much as possible,” he said. “Poachers set out huge lines of hundreds and hundreds of snares along watering holes or game paths.” These snares typically target animals such as impalas, warthogs, buffalo, and wildebeests—all of which are prey species that lions depend on for food.

The illegal trade is “destroying wildlife at an unprecedented rate in Africa,” Kat said. “It leads to faunal deserts, and it causes a huge problem in terms of predator-livestock conflict, because the lions don’t have anything to eat. It’s all been poached.” Studies have found that prey populations in key lion habitats have declined by at least 50 percent over the past three decades. In West Africa, where only a few hundred lions are scattered between 17 nations, that number swells to 85 percent.

Although lions aren’t usually targeted by these snares, they do get caught and killed. Hunter suspects many of these dead lions end up in the growing trade in lion bones, which has surged over the past decade, in part to replace tigers, which have all but disappeared from their Asian habitats. Most of this trade is still legal, but Hunter said lion bones are also increasingly found side by side with illegal shipments of elephant ivory, rhino horn, and other products.

“All of a sudden, lions have become a commodity, which was never true before,” Kat said.

The good news, said LionAid’s other director and founder, Christine MacSween, is that “Cecil’s death has shone a very bright light into all of these practices. Poor Cecil lost his life, but he helped us in all kinds of wonderful ways to bring those issues out to the world.”

Hunter said “the challenges to protecting lions are still vast,” but he hopes that there’s now a much larger group of people who care than there was before Cecil’s death. “My hope is that they’re willing to go the extra mile and continue to act on behalf of Cecil and his species,” he said.