Recently, OneKind published our report on mountain hare persecution in Scotland. These indigenous animals are much loved by many, celebrated in myth and literature, and are an important part of the upland ecosystem. However, they are also shot for sport.
During our investigation into mountain hare persecution, we discovered that several of the companies which offer the opportunity to kill Scottish hares also offer hunting trips in various African countries, such as Zimbabwe, where Cecil the lion lived and died – at the hands of a hunter on a similar trip.
Trophy hunting is a contentious topic, especially in Africa. Even the previously uninformed must now be aware of it, due to news of Cecil’s demise going viral. A perfect storm of factors caused this media frenzy: an increasing awareness of the perilous decline of African megafauna; a lion, already charismatic by genetics, who also had a name; and the ability of social media to enrage and impassion people.
In many ways, this unprecedented outrage at the death of an animal was a positive step for animal welfare. It brought to the fore the myriad issues surrounding conservation in Africa, and trophy hunting in particular, and provoked an international discussion regarding the ethics involved. Several countries banned lion trophies entering and more than 40 airlines introduced or reaffirmed bans on ‘big five’ trophies.
But what made Cecil so special? Working with guides and conservationists in Zimbabwe, I saw many ‘Cecils’. In fact, lions and many other animals are killed regularly in Africa, in the same way as Cecil was, by foreign hunters who pay a premium to hang a head on their wall. Surely every animal has an equal right to life, and should be equally defended or mourned. If so, then we must decry all hunting, whether or not the animal killed was famous, or had a name, or was pretty enough to grace a wall or a newspaper front cover.
Banning trophy hunting in Africa will not be simple. My time there taught me that there are complex political, social, environmental and structural problems which influence animal welfare and conservation. It is misguided and condescending to think that we can solve them from our western sitting rooms. Many in Zimbabwe only heard of Cecil after his death; he was famous mainly to foreigners. For the majority in that wonderful, troubled country, focusing so heavily on one animal is nonsensical, and a luxury they cannot afford.
Perhaps we should look closer to home. How many people who were incensed at Cecil being shot realise that thousands of animals are shot annually in Scotland, sometimes by the very same companies who shoot lions in Zimbabwe? We must be careful to avoid hypocrisy: denouncing Zimbabwean hunters and their rich American clients while ignoring our own hunting industry. What will it take to awaken people’s awareness, to stimulate their compassion? What is the life of a hare worth? And is it worth more if we give the hare a name?