What Walter Palmer Did Wasn’t Hunting

Cecil the lion in 2012 CREDIT: PAULA FRENCH VIA AP
Cecil the lion in 2012 CREDIT: PAULA FRENCH VIA AP

Two men will face charges in a Zimbabwe courtroom on Wednesday that they took bribes from an American dentist to guide him on an illegal hunt of a beloved local lion. But Walter Palmer, the Minneapolis dentist who shot the lion, faces no charges — and may have doomed hunters’ hopes to be seen as agents of conservation rather than destruction.

Palmer’s killing of a male lion named Cecil might never have come to light were it not for the GPS collar the animal wore, which allowed academics at Oxford to track down the carcass and discover the hunters. Since then, the local outfitters who took Palmer on the hunt have been charged, and Palmer has released a statement laying full blame for the illegality of the hunt on his guides.

The story has sparked vast outrage at Palmer and at trophy hunting more generally — and the proper role of trophy hunters in conserving rapidly-dwindling big game species in sub-Saharan Africa is less clear-cut than it might seem.

Palmer took an unsporting and incompetent approach to Cecil, according to reports. The dentist and his guides reportedly used bait to lure the animal out of the park land where it would have been illegal to shoot him and used a spotlight to illuminate Palmer’s shot.


Hunting ethics revolve around swift killshots that do not cause suffering. Cecil was still alive more than a day and a half after Palmer’s initial, well-lit bow-and-arrow shot failed to kill.

“I think it’s an abomination, for a number of reasons,” lifelong hunter, journalist, and author Jonny Miles told ThinkProgress. “On the specifics of the hunt, with baiting, with using lights, and also killing a lion that has a pride — all of it just adds up to an incredibly unethical, unscrupulous way of going about this.”

Hunters pride themselves on having the patience and skill to fell an animal immediately with a single shot. “An ethical hunter is one who seeks out the best possible shot that results in the quickest possible kill,” Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) public relations director Mark Holyoak told ThinkProgress. Holyoak wouldn’t discuss the reports about Palmer’s hunt, but stressed the more general importance of being swift and sure.

Attempting a shot that’s beyond your own skill level is abhorrent to many, because it puts the personal glory of a long-range kill over the imperative to honor your prey by adhering to the principles of “fair chase.” The reported details of Palmer’s hunt do not match those principles.

“This is much closer to assassination than hunting,” Miles said, adding that a bad shot is “the most traumatic thing that can happen in a hunt.” For him and many other hunters, it’s imperative to eat what you kill. Antlers make a nice trophy, but “the trophy aspect is subordinate to the experience, to the knowledge required and the knowledge gained, to the very ancient relationship that you are experiencing with an animal that you are hunting for food.”


“Hunting shouldn’t be about ego,” he said. “It should be the opposite. It should be about awe at the natural world.”

If the dentist’s approach to hunting is not representative of the best practices of the hunting community, his incompetent and illegal killing of Cecil may not be a fair gauge for the overall relationship between trophy hunting and conservation of the rapidly-dwindling lion population. With other species of game, hunters play a vital role in maintaining a healthy population — and in conserving wilderness spaces that might otherwise be encroached by development and pollution.

Just 20,000 African lions survive today, down from a population of about half a million in the middle of the 20th century. Killing a single lion in 2015 is mathematically equivalent to murdering 400,000 of the planet’s roughly eight billion people. And because Cecil’s six cubs will likely be killed by the next male to take over the pride, Palmer’s wayward arrow and days-later mercy shot may be as devastating to the lion population as the death of three million people would be to humanity.

There are two main competing strategies for bringing the lion population onto a sustainable path. Each relies on putting a clear, consistent, and high economic value on the lives of lions and other big game animals that are threatened by poaching. To convince a shepherd he’s better off not killing the lion that’s eaten a dozen of his animals in the past year, conservationists have to put resources in his hands that are tangibly worth more than the value he’s lost to the lion’s appetite.

All sides agree about that strategic goal. The question is how to achieve it.

Trophy hunters argue that the best way to win minds is to put a very high price on a license for hunting lion, and use the money that big game enthusiasts spend on the licenses to furnish development resources in the relevant communities. But while trophy hunting licenses do generate significant raw sums of revenue for the governments that sell them, almost none of that cash ever makes it to the communities that are supposed to benefit, according to a 2013 analysis by Economists At Large. The review found that just 3 percent of hunting company revenues actually reach the communities adjacent to hunting ground. “The vast majority of their expenditure does not accrue to local people and businesses, but to firms, government agencies and individuals located internationally or in national capitals,” the study found.


Other conservationists insist that the hunters’ logic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and advocate for almost absolute preservation of lion lives. The resources required to persuade locals to tolerate lions should come from eco-tourism, they argue, which provides a steady trickle of money that will add up to more over the course of the lion’s life than any one-time money shower from selling a hunter a license. (Licenses can cost as much as $70,000, but even that high-end price values the life of one of a rare and dwindling animal species at about the same as a nice BMW sedan.) The Obama administration has thrown some weight behind this point of view recently by making it all but impossible to trade elephant ivory in the United States — a move that cracks down on trophy hunting in favor of the eco-tourism approach.

In a lengthy 2008 dissertation, Hassanali Thomas Sachedina analyzed the breakdown of the revenue flow from hunting licenses further and found both that there is too little money actually coming into local governments from the licenses. What does come in generally gets spent on “political expediencies” rather than actual community development work.

One Tanzanian villager explained the problem on the ground succinctly to Sachedina: “They are finishing off the wildlife before we’ve had a chance to realize a profit from it.”