The outrage over the murder of Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, Cecil, by an American dentist is sparking renewed pledges to “do something” about illegal wildlife trafficking. As it should. And not a moment too late. The extensive news coverage is reminding people that lions, like elephants, are a species under threat. In the 1980s, there were an estimated 100,000 lions across the continent of Africa (down from half a million in 1940). In the 1990s, only 50,000 lions remained. Since then, the population has declined another 30%, with possibly only 20,000 lions remaining.
The causes are several-fold: diminishing habitat due to human population growth; poaching as well as trophy hunting; disease; declining food sources outside of national parks; and a weakened gene pool where populations are the most under stress. To the tourist, it is deceiving when visiting national parks in Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania, as lions seem plentiful, which they are in these protected areas. But a specie’s health cannot be evaluated based on narrowly defined geographies. The lion is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The African elephant is also listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN. Together, the lion and elephant are universal icons of Africa. Thousands of people venture to the big game countries annually to see these noble and iconic animals. Already Zimbabwe officials are reporting a significant drop in tourism in Hwange, the national park where Cecil resided before being lured out of the park and killed. According to USA Today, “many international tourists that were set to visit the country to see Cecil have canceled their trips.” This drop will hurt wildlife protection programs that are dependent upon tourist dollars. The report goes on to say, “Conservationists fear Cecil’s death could lead to the deaths of other lions in the pride. ‘The saddest part of all is that the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs so that he can introduce his bloodline into the females,’ said Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force Chairman Johnny Rodrigues. ‘This is the standard procedure for lions.'” On a happy note, since that report earlier today, scientists studying this pride have observed that Cecil’s brother is protecting the cubs from Jericho.
While the nature of Cecil’s death is truly appalling, let us not forget that everyday, nearly 100 elephants are brutally and indiscriminately murdered for their ivory — an average of one death every fifteen minutes. We should feel that same level of outrage every day, and continue to recommit to ending this inhumane slaughter of African nations’ national treasures. Cecil’s death should not be in vain. Channel your anger into support for organizations committed to fighting wildlife trafficking as well as resolving human-wildlife conflict. Go to the “Experts” page to see a list of these organizations and links to their sites. Stay angry on behalf of Cecil and the elephants. And if you have plans to go to Hwange in Zimbabwe, don’t cancel your plans. Cecil’s family is counting on you.