Conservationists Clash on #CecilTheLion, Hunting, and the Future

Zimbabwe-born Moreangels Mbizah speaks at pop-up session #CeciltheLion: What Next? at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Montpellier, France. Mbizah is a researcher with the University of Oxford’s WildCRU, the team who had collared and studied Cecil prior to his illegal killing. (Photo by Clare Fieseler)

Cecil the Lion’s illegal killing isn’t just trending in news, it was trending in the hallways of the International Congress of Conservation Biology (ICCB) last week. The biennial, five-day gathering of 2,000 scientists is structured by formal, planned presentations. But on the conference’s last day, an untraditional pop-up session called “#CecilTheLion: What Next?” revealed just how factionalized 65 of us conservationists are about lion hunting.

In fact, after a one-hour debate, the group could only broadly agree on two things:
1. We conservation scientists could do better on social media to soothe knee-jerk reactions.
2. Let’s harness the public emotion behind #CecilTheLion for a professional, scientific, and global dialogue about conservation, trophy hunting, and human welfare.


Why No Agreement?

It’s not just the “hunting-is-good-for-conservation” argument that divides us.

The voices at the professional conservation roundtable are more diverse than ever. Gone are the days when conservation professionals were strictly from the West. This year’s ICCB meeting drew delegates from over 90 countries. The Society of Conservation Biology, the professional society organizing ICCB, has gone from 80 percent North American membership to 50 percent in the past 15 years. These perspectives bring some realism to conservation problem-solving.

“If we ban trophy hunting tomorrow, then what happens?” said session leader Moreangels Mbizah, an Oxford University researcher working in Hwange National Park. She is a native Zimbabwean who has studied lions in the region including Cecil. “It’s more complex than we would like to think.” Other delegates from African countries echoed the importance of considering the complex web of human well-being, economics, and conservation. One delegate reminded us how dangerous it is to live with lions and that donations to mitigate human-lion conflict weren’t piling up like they were for lion conservation.

On the other end of the spectrum, ethics are becoming increasingly entangled in conservation as the details of particular hunts come into focus. It was widely reported that Cecil the Lion suffered almost two days after being shot with an arrow. The transparency of news media was bringing to life that hunting practices span a spectrum of relatively humane to inhumane. Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for Animal Welfare Institute argued that “No, we should not draw a line between animal welfare and biodiversity conservation. It’s not practical at this point.”

Tradition still shapes us. The first leaders of conservation, in North America at least, were hunters, including Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, and some of the founders of the National Geographic Society. “Do we need a pseudo-return to traditional game management, like Aldo Leopold suggested?” questioned Dr. Duane Biggs, a research fellow at University of Queensland. For centuries, hunting has informed and advanced humanity’s awareness of the natural world. The frequent decision to include hunting in conservation landscapes isn’t just economically motivated; for many conservationists it’s made philosophically as well. But the question is about fitting hunting into the modern realities of species loss and government corruption.


Conservation Biologists Fall Short on Communication

Of the 65 conservation biologists at “#CecilTheLion: What Next?” over half had used social media to share relevant facts and professional opinions in the wake of Cecil’s killing. But we all agreed we have a moral obligation to better amplify our own informed messages.

“Don’t be afraid to engage in debates and act fast. Use your opinions [in addition to] facts,” said Dr. Diogo Verissimo who studies the social impact of conservation campaigns in partnership with Rare. The group widely acknowledged that the news coverage of #CeciltheLion was being carried by strong emotion over the topic on social media. If scientists don’t express our own emotions, then do we miss the point of social media engagement?

Furthermore, there’s often an expectation that scientists should not be emotional about their subjects, but Rose doesn’t think that’s the case in real life. “Every conservation biologist [I know] is overly emotional,” she said. “If you’re not, and you’re working on these issues, you’re a sociopath.” The group then debated how to harness our own emotion—and the public’s—to motivate solutions to illegal hunting or wildlife exploitation.

The 60-minute session ended and we agreed on almost nothing except the fact that these issues needed more than 60 minutes. “Our conservation movement is quite factionalized and we need to have a global summit to decide on which we can,” said Dr. Paul Jepson, leader of the Conservation Governance Lab at the University of Oxford. Two hours later, Jepson tweeted this video. Time will tell if his call to action is heeded.


Read All Posts by Clare Fieseler

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Meet the Author
Clare Fieseler is a National Geographic Grantee and National Geographic Creative photographer. She’s currently a Innovation Fellow at Conservation X Labs and is completing her PhD in Ecology at UNC Chapel Hill. Follow her @clarefieseler on Twitter Instagram.