11 thoughts about Cecil the lion

This is not Cecil the lion. I shot this lioness in 2000 in Tanzania... with a digital camera.

This is not Cecil the lion. I shot this lioness in 2000 in Tanzania… with a digital camera.

1) The manner in which Cecil the lion was killed (he slowly bled to death over nearly 2 days after being shot with an arrow before eventually being shot with a rifle) is strikingly inhumane and atypical of hunting. Lots of people seem to be fixating on the fact that he was skinned and beheaded after he was killed, but that’s pretty typical for hunting.

2) If the hunter who shot and killed Cecil the lion broke the law in doing so (this seems to be not entirely resolved, he had a permit to kill a lion but seems to have lured Cecil out of a protected area) he should absolutely be held responsible for it. In a court.

3) The hunter’s excuse of “I should not be responsible for anything that happened during the hunt because I hired guides to plan everything” is complete bullshit, both legally and morally.

4) I have major issues with the ethics and conservation impacts of trophy hunting and fishing for threatened species (hell, I’ve written not one but two papers about this topic). I am not opposed to hunting or fishing in general, I grew up fishing for bluegill and my school district got the first day of deer hunting season off of school.  However, there is an ethical difference between fishing for a mahi-mahi to eat and fishing for a pregnant female IUCN Red List Endangered great hammerhead shark so you can take a picture with a big dead fish, and there is an ethical difference between hunting an overpopulated deer to eat and hunting a lion so you can put its head on your wall.

5) Much of the rhetoric associated with criticizing the killing of Cecil the lion has been extremist,  out-of-control, and unacceptable. The hunter and his family were doxxed and have received death threats. This kind of nonsense shows up in many online discussions about conservation, and is morally repugnant in addition to being counterproductive to the cause.

6) The idea that “everyone in Zimbabwe loved Cecil the lion” is nonsense (see this post from a Zimbabwean who had never heard of Cecil the lion and was confused by the media coverage).

7) It is undeniable that under some circumstances, trophy hunting (and fishing) can benefit conservation. For example, many wetlands in the U.S. got protected from development because duck hunters paid to protect them so they’d have a place to hunt ducks. See this piece by Jason Goldman, this by Niki Rust, and this by Niki Rust and Diogo Verissimo for good round-ups of these issues from conservation researchers and writers. Conservation ain’t free, and regulated hunts associated with permits from the government can raise much-needed funds. If these permits are kept to a minimum and are associated with populations who won’t be harmed by the loss of a few individuals, this will have a minimal conservation impact. Sometimes, as in the case of the rhino who was killed last year in exchange for a $350,000 permit, rangers were planning on killing the animal anyway to maintain a healthy population.

8) Some activists (who I respect) associated with completely unrelated causes (which I support) have been complaining about the relative attention that Cecil the lion is receiving, which is not helpful. It’d be super great if everyone could knock off the “lots of people care about a dead lion but I haven’t personally observed them caring about a completely unrelated issue that I personally think is more important” nonsense. People are allowed to care about multiple things. People are allowed to care about different things than you. Threatened species conservation is an important thing. There are also other important things. And no one has ever won anyone over to their side by saying “you’re dumb for caring about the thing you care about, care about the thing I care about instead.” **** SEE BELOW***

9) It is possible to be concerned about many aspects of trophy hunting while acknowledging that it can help conservation in some contexts. It is possible to think that what this dentist did to Cecil the lion was bad, but still think that threatening to kill the dentist is bad. It is possible to think that threatening to kill the dentist is bad, but still think that folks saying that “any criticism of hunting is silly and extremist because some critics threatened to kill a dentist” is bad. This is called nuance. More people on the internet should learn about it.

10) As a conservationist focusing on endangered species or populations, the relative increase in attention that something graphic happening to an individual animal receives can be frustrating, but there’s really nothing you can do about it. It’s human nature, one death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic and all that. The only thing you can do is do what I do with Shark Week, capitalize on the temporary increase in public interest to try and get information about how to help into the discussion. For example, here’s a great list of conservation organizations who focus on lion conservation.

11) This was the first news story I saw after my annual one week social media unplug, and within a few hours I was mad at everyone involved. You can see in the rants above that I’ve criticized the hunter, the backlash to the hunter, and the backlash to the backlash, as well as both trophy hunting and critics of trophy hunting in general. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Is it next summer yet?


***UPDATE*** Based on conversations with colleagues re: #8, I am adding that there are differences in how this “lots of people care about Cecil but not another separate cause” meme is playing out. This, by Luvvie Ajayi, I agree with. She’s saying “I wish people would care about my important cause in addition to yours,” not “you are dumb for caring about your cause and not mine which is obviously more important,” which others are saying. There was also some hilarious and spot-on satire showing Cecil the lion eating a gazelle and saying he was “no angel,”. So yeah, in addition to criticizing others for lacking nuance, I should probably show some nuance myself. 


  1. Jupp Kerckerinck · July 31, 2015

    That is a very good statement and I agree 100% with it.

  2. Georgie · July 31, 2015

    This is fabulous! I may differ slightly on a point of two since I am completely against any and all trophy or sport hunting. But I especially like #8 and #9 – they are brilliant! I have already borrowed them to post (with link credit), I hope you don’t mind. So many people are jumping on the already full to tipping bandwagon, posting about how we should not be so outraged about this when there are so many other issues. I have tried to put it into words exactly what you have expressed here, but not put it quite so brilliantly. Well done!

  3. Natalie · July 31, 2015

    It’s nice to see a balanced opinion but I find it hard to agree with #7. Just because there’s a need to control population doesn’t mean that commercial hunting should be the vehicle to do so- surely putting any price on a protected animal is what encourages poachers to see a market in their illegal trade?

  4. Darren Pellichino · July 31, 2015

    Super article David, it was very easy to follow every point and I agree with you on the differences of trophy hunting vs hunting animals with huge populations. I do have to admit that I am less likely to consider removing a destructive human from the world as a bad thing. I know it will hurt brothers and parents and kids when they loose a loved one so I am not stating this in denial of what it really means. It’s the value of the two individuals in question. A nearly perfect male lion vs a person who causes stress on an already threatened species and likely has a damaging personality toward others. Of course Mr. Lion has removed many sisters and brothers from their respective families as well and I have no clue on his grandiose personality, so he is not a shining hero. As fellow carnivores I see more value in keeping the Lion and removing the man, and since we can’t make that choice I would choose to remove the man. It may come off kind of delusional and maybe all of my years researching animal cognition has made me identify with them on equal levels. I am just, unable to give a free pass to a well thought and planned action. Like someone who says I am not a bad person I just did something bad. The truth is my actions are part of who I am and yes I am partly a bad person. I do not want a free pass on my actions as I’d rather pay for anything I do. And I hold others to the same measuring stick.

  5. Rebecca Brooks · July 31, 2015

    Nice piece. I have been thinking a lot in recent years about culling for conservation and have come to the conclusion I’d prefer other ideas. Individual lives within any species matter, not just the human species; they certainly matter to the individuals who possess them. About the different issues…I think we need to be taking a deeper look at our culture, many of issues though different on the surface intersect morally and ethically. Human beings can be really smart and creative, surely we are ready to solve problems we created by means other than killing. It’d be lovely if more and more of us could just get fed up with killing as problem solving.

  6. Rob Chodowski · July 31, 2015

    Well written opinion piece…I agree with your assessments, but also with Natalie. I have moral & ethical issues with trophy hunting. As for other important issues of the day, if you haven’t noticed due to your self-imposed sabbatical, the US is suffering through an extreme heatwave of historical proportions. In the cool Pacific NW, for instance, our temps have been in the high 90’s and has been exceeding 100 degrees where we’re located, in the the rainforest on the west side of the Cascades in SW Washington. We’re about to brake the all time heat record of the most days exceeding 90 degrees. While browsing USA Today they’re reporting that the middle east, specifically Iran, just recorded a heat index of 163 degrees. Point is: Al Gore was right and global warming and climate change (erratic extremes in weather) are now a reality and affects lifestyles, our economy, national security and will be the cause of many future world conflicts. Hopefully, the same people that are as outraged as I am over the killing of Cecil are just as concerned about the human causes (i.e. excessive CO2 from fossil fuel emissions) of climate extremes. Unfortunately, here in the US, only 47-49% believe it’s caused by human actions. Science and empirical evidence be damned. Sorry for my “long winded” comment. I was just in one of those conversational moods.

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