Killing of Cecil the lion caused outrage - but legal hunting can be lifeline for Africa's wildlife
Published 31/07/2015 | 02:30
The death of Cecil the lion has caused outrage but the killing of big game offers a key to conservation. There's something rather tragic about a dead big cat; an apex predator reduced to something akin to a battered teddy crossed with a shagpile carpet.
So it's easy to understand the anger over Cecil, the Zimbabwean lion killed by Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota. Piers Morgan's tweet, announcing: "I'd love to go hunting for killer dentist Dr Walter Palmer, so I can stuff him on my office wall", is typical of the digital castigation now being heaped on the American.
I wonder, then, what Palmer's critics would make of Kirkpatrick, whose head and skin lie by my desk as I type. He's an Indian leopard, 7ft from head to tail, his face twisted into a sardonic snarl, who took 34 human lives before he met his demise in 1934 with a bullet from the local district commissioner. Would they condemn his killing or that of the leopard of Rudraprayag, shot by Jim Corbett in 1926 after it had eaten 125 souls?
The circumstances and motives differ, of course, but highlight the complexity that surrounds hunting, both abroad and in Ireland and Britain. Western armchair animal lovers may rail against the ethics of trophy hunting in Africa but it brings considerable income to poor countries. A 2006 scientific paper estimated that "trophy hunting generates gross revenues of at least $201m per year in Sub-Saharan Africa: from a minimum of 18,500 clients". It also found that "a minimum of 1,394,000 square km is used for trophy hunting" and concluded that it creates "economic incentives for conservation over vast areas".
Legalised, controlled hunting can be a lifeline for some of Africa's most endangered species - and South Africa is leading the way. While most of Africa's black rhino population is under assault from poaching, with a decline from some 500,000 animals at the turn of the 20th century to just over 5,000 today, the white rhino population has grown from 50 in the 1900s to more than 20,000 today. And most of those are in South Africa, where you can legally hunt them.
Many hunters think other African countries should follow South Africa's example and encourage well-organised, controlled culling of species, so giving them a value to those who live with them.They argue that a rhino, like anything else, will eventually die of old age, so why not allow an elderly beast to be shot and charge fees that can be used to fund effective anti-poaching measures?
That argument fails to convince those who find any form of hunting repugnant, who condemn anyone who hunts as "barbaric", a term routinely used against those who follow field sports in Britain and Ireland. But being an "animal lover" does not automatically make you a good conservationist.
Those celebrating the Scottish Nationalist Party's scuppering of the Conservatives' attempt to bring foxhunting legislation in England into line with Scotland should ponder why foxes are not made a protected species in Britain. It's simply because such a measure would carry no credence with real conservationists. Even the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds controls foxes, along with other opportunistic predators.
Such groups accept, albeit reluctantly, that populist conservation thinking, while cuddly, does not work in a small country where there's no such thing as a "natural environment".
In the past 50 years alone, 60pc of 3,148 species studied in Britain have declined, one third of them seriously. Unpalatable as it may be to sentimentalists, the only places where you will find thriving populations of lapwings and other ground-nesting birds, such as curlews and grey partridges, are on estates with diligent gamekeepers who control flourishing hordes of crows, magpies, rats and foxes.
As someone whose primary motivation for hunting is to put something delicious on the table - and I do love a warm wood pigeon salad - I don't quite understand Mr Palmer's desire to shoot a lion with a bow and arrow. But when I'm at the Game Fair this weekend, along with the thousands of others who use their own money to improve our rivers, moors and woodlands, I know I'm with the people that really make the world a better place.
Jonathan Young is Editor of 'The Field'