In the wake of the international outcry over the death of Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, the country’s wildlife authority has suspended the hunting of lions, leopards and elephants in the areas outside the park that the black-maned Cecil made his home before he was lured to his death. Conservationists hailed the move as a good first step. But more than a temporary stop in hunting in one African country will be needed if threatened and endangered species are to be saved.

Circumstances of the death of Cecil, a 13-year-old lion popular with tourists at Hwange National Park and being studied by scientists, are well known. Shot with an arrow after a dead animal was allegedly used to draw him out of his sanctuary, Cecil was tracked for 40 hours before being shot with a gun, skinned and beheaded. Walter Palmer, the American dentist who admitted killing Cecil, expressed regret, saying he relied on local guides and thought the hunt was legal. Officials in Zimbabwe and the United States are investigating.

What must not get lost in the hunt for justice for one celebrity lion is that Cecil’s death is part of a larger problem. The decline in population of African lions has been dramatic, from 500,000 to 600,000 at the turn of the 20th century to about 30,000 today. Other animals — elephants, rhinoceros, apes — are in equal, sometimes greater, danger. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff pointed up the contrast in attention between Cecil’s killing and that of five nameless elephants slaughtered in Kenya by poachers marketing in ivory.

Hunting, legal and illegal, has not been the main cause of the decline in animal populations; that honor goes to the encroachment of civilization on natural habitats. Indeed, some hunting enthusiasts even argue that trophy hunting can be a boon to conservation by generating big fees to support sanctuaries, attract tourists and discourage local residents from killing animals or taking over their habitats.

Whether trophy hunting is beneficial to wildlife is a matter of some dispute. A 2009 report from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said it had produced “mixed results.” Countries (Namibia is an example) that tightly regulate trophy hunting (paying close attention to the population of species), are vigilant about enforcement and are transparent about where the monies go can claim some overall benefits in helping wildlife. Too many countries, though, sell permits with lax regulations, no enforcement and no idea of the impact on animal populations.

The African Wildlife Foundation is asking all African governments to consider placing a moratorium on the trophy hunting of lions. Delta has joined other airlines in banning the shipment of big-game trophies on its flights. The United Nations has called on member states to increase efforts to fight poaching of endangered species, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has proposed listing lions as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. All are prudent moves that we hope will prove to be more than a sop to those mourning Cecil.

Editorial by The Washington Post


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