A year ago, a lion called Cecil was killed in Zimbabwe by American dentist and trophy hunter Walter Palmer, who reportedly paid $50,000 for the privilege.
It subsequently came to light that Cecil may have been lured away from the protection of Hwange National Park in which he usually resided, in order to enable Palmer to target him. It also transpired that Cecil had been tracked and studied by Oxford University since 2008 as part of a conservation research project, and was fitted with a radio collar.
Palmer tried to kill the lion using a bow and arrow; in the event, Cecil was wounded by Palmer's incompetent shot, and reports suggest he wasn't finally killed for a further 40 hours, following which Palmer and his hunting guide beheaded and skinned him, and tried to hide his radio collar.
Palmer has not been charged with any crime in either Zimbabwe or his native USA. His hunter-guide, Theo Bronkhorst was charged in Zimbabwe with 'failing to prevent an unlawful hunt', although as of January 2016 the case remained unresolved after a series of appeals.
Cecil was around 13 years old when he was killed, had led more than one lion pride during his life, and at the time of his death was presiding over several females alongside another male called Jericho. The two lions had recently sired a number of cubs. The manner of his death sparked international outrage, much of which was initially targeted at Palmer. Tourism revenues in Zimbabwe reportedly fell sharply, and senior politicians in a number of countries condemned the killing.
The events also led to increased scrutiny of the trophy hunting industry. Analysis suggests that, on average, as many as 170,000 hunting trophies are shipped across international borders each year, around 20,000 of which are derived from threatened species. The United States is by far the biggest single importer, with Germany and Spain being the main European trophy destinations. The more iconic and endangered an animal is, the higher the hunting fees: in January 2014, American hunter Corey Knowlton paid US$350,000 for a permit to hunt a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia, which he eventually killed in May 2015.
Claims by hunting proponents that trophy hunting benefits wildlife conservation and local communities are being challenged. In 2012, a report by Economists at Large entitled 'The $200 Million Question' cast doubt on the claimed value of the trophy hunting industry, and found that trophy hunting contributed only 1.8% of total tourism income across nine African countries with hunting companies passing just 3% of their income to local African communities. A report by the Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee in the US, published in June 2016, found little evidence that trophy hunting revenues are being used to help threatened species, mostly because of rampant corruption in some countries and poor management of wildlife programmes; the report concluded that trophy hunting may be contributing to the extinction of some species. An academic paper published in the journal Ecological Applications in June 2016 recognised that trophy hunting has had negative effects on lion populations across Africa.
Since Cecil's death, some significant actions have been taken. France announced a ban on lion trophy imports in November 2015, and the Netherlands introduced a ban on the import of hunting trophies from around 200 species, including lions, the following April. In January 2016, the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service added lions to the Endangered Species Act, making it more difficult for American lion trophy hunters to ship their trophies home. A host of airlines have banned or restricted the carriage of hunting trophies, and the death of Cecil was cited by a number of officials as being influential in the development and adoption of the United Nations' Resolution on Wildlife Trafficking.
The European Union is proposing much stricter international controls on the setting of trophy quotas and the export of trophies of threatened species, for consideration at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species due to take place in Johannesburg in September 2016.
The Born Free Foundation and other animal protection organisations who are wholly opposed to the killing of animals for sport or pleasure, have been working to bring the brutality of this so-called 'sport' to the attention of policymakers, enforcement bodies, and the public, for many years. Horrific though Cecil's killing was, it has focussed attention on the brutality of trophy hunting, and has helped to dispel the myth that the killing of wild animals for fun by a wealthy elite somehow benefits wildlife conservation or local communities. Its continued promotion by a tiny minority undermines our humanity.
Cecil's death must not have been in vain.