"What if a greater race of beings were to make flutes and buttons out of our bones?"

                                                          Henry David Thoreau

"I do not want to live on a planet where there are no lions anymore."

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                                                          Werner Herzog

Let me respond to a recent opinion piece on Changing America for the king of beasts. For there is a measure of the wild and the free inside each and every one of us. The lion is one of the first beings that children are introduced to when they come into the world, when they learn to read and marvel, in the form of Aslan, the lion king, and a myriad other incarnations. They personify the regal and the wondrous and the majestic and powerful and everyone knows that royalty for millennia likened itself to the lion, from the Assyrian kings to British royalty like no other animal on Earth.

Laurens van der Post, once called the conscience of the Western world, affirmed that no other creature possessed the strength, the speed, the cunning of a lion. They possess, as Aldous Huxley once wrote, “a grace humans do not. They have the key to Eden.” They were not chased out of Paradise like humans were, and for this reason are our original mentors. They formed an integral part of the European psyche until very recently, and its cohesion as the great social cat had a major influence on human family coherence as we evolved on the plains of Africa. And when European man started to dismember Africa and enslave her peoples, what did they do to her wildlife?

Carl Jung tells of a very special moment when he was in western Kenya, near Mt. Elgon about a century ago. He was told of a particular lion that roamed the area. Once he awoke to find the tracks of the lion “that huge beast,” outside his tent. Jung said, “So I looked at the natives rather astonished, but they smiled and said, ‘it is not bad, it is our lion.’” When Jung became “psychically infected” by the primitive and given to delve in the non-ego and participation mystique he gathered from the vast wilderness of Africa, he was in part alluding to the animal kingdom. For Jung animals were the “priests of God.”

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Photo by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

One can be accused of being emotional about life, about earth’s species, in this time of the sixth extinction. It is a catastrophic time for life on earth mostly because of our western model of having made slaves out of so many countless species, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote. He knew how it would not be until we had liberated ourselves from outmoded ways of treating the other beings of this planet, that we would find our souls on this earth. 

It is not a common sense to have this need, this brutal imposition of wanting to take life for mere entertainment. Science does not reign when it comes to trophy hunting. It is prejudice. Elspeth Huxley, the grand dame of letters in Kenya, wrote, “It’s a lot of tommyrot, this so-called sport, it’s rotten to the core, like everything else about this modern civilization. Sport! It’s no more a sport than shooting sitting pheasants, if as much. There’s only one sporting way to hunt big game, and that’s the old way, the way these natives follow — to hunt on foot with spears and bows and arrows, weapons a man can make himself out of materials ready to his hand. It’s a battle of wits between one man and one beast: a test of which can command the greatest cunning, the keenest senses, the highest skill. True sport involves equality between rivals, you see. It isn’t sport; it’s murder.”

And she continues, “There’s no danger at all in going after some wretched animal, whose only idea is to escape, armed with a battery of expensive high velocity rifles and flanked by a couple of professional sharpshooters.”

The native people we have talked to from East Africa to the southwest of the continent have always found it bizarre if not downright murderous to take life for fun. Maasai elders we have spoken to have commented on the fact that children were told to “respect the wild” in the words of one of our guides, Elijah, from the Chyulu Hills. The true story of a large male lion who escorted a Maasai young mother and her child and protected them from hyenas and other lions for over 20 kilometers as she walked from one boma to her new husband’s home, should give us pause. What was in that remarkable male lion's mind when he escorted and protected a human mother for miles? If a single lion can act so benevolently, why are we executing the others?

And so yes I respond with feeling, with emotion, but also as Elliot Morley wrote in 2004 in “The Myth of Trophy Hunting as Conservation,” with common sense. In 1982, according to Elliot, a lion in Kenya, where the hunting ban was implemented in 1977, brought the country about $50,000 a year while in neighboring Tanzania a lion could be shot for $2,000 dollars and that life was gone forever. Today, 40 percent of hunting concessions have been stripped of their wildlife in Tanzania and more than 70 percent in Zambia, according to Pieter of Lion Aid, who have been monitoring populations all over Africa for years. He submits that pro-hunting lobbies from safari clubs, to WWF, to the UN Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species “have been successful in convincing Africa and Western governments that trophy hunting equates to conservation.” Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has published documents echoing pro-hunting organizations’ claims that “well managed and sustainable trophy hunting is consistent with and contributes to species conservation as it provides both livelihood opportunities for rural communities and incentives for habitat conservation and generates benefits which can be invested for conservation purposes.”

Really? Pieter responds that in 1995 Tanzania’s Department of Wildlife issued a statement that “the trophy hunting industry requires improved management and regulation; the industry has not always conducted to the high standards of codes and conduct; the rural communities have not received an equitable share of revenue from tourist hunting; little revenue from tourist hunting has been reinvested in the management of protected areas.” A quarter of a century later these concerns remain paramount. Little has changed.

Photo by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

According to Blythe Loutit, founder of Save the Rhino Trust Fund in Namibia, “Hunting is quick income for one or two trackers and a skinner; three to five people in one family can earn a permanent income in tourism.” In the spring of 2004 during an undercover operation for the League Against the Cruel Sports Investigation, Sir Edward Dashwood admitted that “90 percent of the trophy fee goes straight into some Nigerian’s pocket or African politician.” The hunting industry according to Elliot primarily profits wealthy landowners, who are almost always white. Garreth Patterson, the lion man of Africa, calls these, not coincidentally, the “pale males.”

Poor governments are easily seduced by the hunting consortiums. In Tanzania, a very small percentage of money collected for hunting licenses is apportioned to the local people. Some like to conflate the actual numbers of lions in Tanzania, saying there are about 15,000 lions in that country alone in order to vindicate trophy hunting. But the harsh reality is that there may be no more than 15,000 on the entire continent. Tanzania probably has no more than 5,000 from the Serengeti to Ruaha to the Selous, Africa’s largest reserve, which is now fast being logged and dammed as a casualty of globalization.

In South Africa, canned hunting is an industry. According to Michele Pickover, the chairwoman of the Xwe African Wild Life Investigation and Research Centre, “A small, but vociferous, pro-gun and pro-hunting lobby, largely made up of white Afrikaans-speaking males, is bank rolling the trophy hunting industry. Seemingly entrenched government bureaucrats who were appointed during the Apartheid era and who are mostly white, Afrikaans-speaking men and who on the whole support hunting, in turn, prop them up.” Priscilla Feral, president of the nonprofit group Friends of Animals, believes that trophy hunting must expire in order to save certain species from extinction. “Elephants, lions and other animals have to be worth more alive than dead,” she says. Isn’t it terribly ironic that African communities who hunted for subsistence were banned from hunting while Europeans like Ernest Hemingway came to Africa to shoot animals just for fun? 

Those who have the means to pay to kill are almost always white while Africans are increasingly marginalized from what remains of the wild. The polarization of wealth is one of the key factors molding the future of an entire continent. Double standards abound all over the continent. How many untold hundreds of thousands of Africans were moved off their traditional land to make space for wildlife? It is no coincidence that this has incited poaching across the continent. And where there has been trophy hunting, as in the Selous, poaching has quickly followed as we discovered in our time there. Opening even a limited legal trade creates a “smokescreen for poachers which is almost impossible to police,” says Elliot. In Tanzania last decade what happened to the elephant population of the Selous can only can be described as a holocaust: 55,000 elephants destroyed in areas occupied by hunting concessions.

In Zimbabwe, Johnny Rodrigues, chairperson of the Zimbabwean Conservation Trust, underscores the problem. “Nobody knows how many animals we have left since the onset of the land reform programme. I estimate we have lost between 90 and 100 percent of game on game ranches, over 60 percent in the conservancies and maybe 40 percent in our national parks. The new settlers don’t bother with quotas. As long as the hunter has money, he can kill to his heart’s content.”

Pieter of LionAid exclaims, “The claim of rural community ‘benefits’ has also been widely challenged. Elite capture, corruption and weak government enforcement have all contributed to the fact that ordinary community members that have turned their land over to hunting operators receive perhaps $4 per year in individual household income. Trophy hunting has been identified as the least economically profitable form of land use, yet massive areas are set aside by African governments to employ a minimal number of people. Claims of trophy hunters building and supporting clinics and schools have also proven empty of content — minimal buildings might have been constructed, but remain absent of any hunter-subsidized provision of nurses, doctors, teachers, beds, desks, books, medicines. Yet such claims are still actively circulated via trophy hunting rhetoric.”

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The International Union for the Conservation of Nature reported in March 2019 that trophy hunting could soon become an anachronism and that its financial contributions to conservation were negligible. Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who have proven their remarkable stamina for the wild in Botswana, say, “To ensure that hunting and the related illegal trade in wildlife do not lead to the extinction of endangered species, trade control and law enforcement mechanisms must first be in place. At this point in time, African governments do not have the capacity of the political will to do this. There are more compelling needs, like health and education, competing for the same scarce government resources. Corruption and poor governance are rife. Any trophy exports now will only achieve short-term benefits and threaten long-term community and national interests.” 

As for the lions. There were over 100,000 when I was a teenager in Kenya for those four months in which everything changed for me. Many years later we would take our son to see the mythical white lions of Timbavati, which are considered sacred to the local people. One major researcher working for Save the Elephants told me that the future of the wild lay not just in science but especially in poetry, humanity’s ability to engage and feel for this rare thing called life. To commit to the life force which is not based on science but a precept engrained in our cells. In a time when the world has lost 60 percent of its wild animal populations in the last generation we had better wake up. The killing of a lion promotes infighting. It creates havoc with a pride’s social structure and increases stress and tension across the spectrum of its family. In taking out an adult male as many as 12 cubs can die. Cub infanticide has also been observed with leopards, bears and other animals. It does not serve the wild. Some ecologists call it reverse evolution. However one calls it, it is perfidy. 

The taking of lion bones to pass as tiger bones in the Asian market cannot be overlooked. There are only about 3,000 tigers in Asia. There may be no more than 3,000 male lions in all of Africa, according to the Jouberts. We have reached a climax point in human history where nature is starting to turn against us. The climate is in upheaval, and how we treat what remains of Creation’s species will dictate the future of our own. Bees are in trouble. The oceans are in turmoil.

Surely the day will come when the deliberate obliteration of even one individual will be considered murder, pure and simple. This is the hallmark of an ontologically mad civilization that is searching for life on other planets while executing the life force of this planet. Our son sang a simple song when he was 4: “A hundred lions are better than two.” What did he know that population biologists didn’t? What did he know that adults who drive bullets into the brains of the innocent still have yet to fathom? How, given climate change’s impact on fertility and gestation, and possible viruses that will creep up on the immune system of species in the future, will we possibly vindicate assassination for amusement?

Science does not reign when it comes to trophy hunting. It is prejudice that molds men’s minds. How on Earth will we be able to explain to the children, that there were once bumblebees on Earth and koalas and blue whales and elephants and lions. How will we dare explain to them, that this is where the wild things were? Trophy hunting is losing ground because it is cruel and sadistic beyond measure. Far better for it to mercifully disappear from the human strain, without anyone getting hurt, than for the great predators and countless species to vanish into the mists of time.

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“And somewhere lions still roam, all unaware in being magnificent, of any weakness.”

                Rainer Maria Rilke 4thDuino Elegy

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.

Photo by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Published on Feb 12, 2020