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A Lion in the Sand: The Future of International Trophy Hunting

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About The Author

Rowan Clapp (Former Public Law & Human Rights Editor)

Rowan graduated from Durham University in 2013 with a First Class degree in Philosophy and Theology. He completed the GDL at BPP University on a Lord Haldane Scholarship and Hardwicke Entrance Award from Lincoln’s Inn. He is currently undertaking an LLM at University College London and working as a volunteer caseworker at Reprieve.

‘What lion?’ – Zimbabwean Acting Information Minister Prisca Mupfumira

I would be very surprised if even the lions in captivity in London Zoo had not heard of the sad death of their compatriot Cecil. The story was unmissable for those on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and called to mind the time Kim Kardashian broke the internet. Many celebrities have publicly weighed in, expressing their revulsion over what they deem to be the senseless murder of a Zimbabwean icon.

Cecil’s death fascinates me for three reasons. First, the intensity of feeling that it raised online. Walter Palmer has copped more abuse in the last three weeks than the Australian cricket team. Second, and quite simply: the media’s pronounced focus on Cecil is ‘insufficiently attentive to other circles of suffering’ (New Yorker) in a continent plagued by disease and famine. Third, it occurs to me that commentators (professional and otherwise) have overlooked and obscured the law on trophy hunting to pursue another big game prize; a great story.

A legal analysis of trophy hunting is required before passing meaningful comment on the Cecil issue. If the lion was killed legally then there should be no uproar (pun intended) without a corresponding charge of hypocrisy: Palmer shot and killed a different lion, legally, prior to Cecil and there was no fuss about his demise. There are also approximately 665 trophy lions killed for export in Africa every year, 49 of which were Zimbabwean. In fact, trophy hunting as an industry comprises 0.29% of the Zimbabwean GDP.

My feeling is also that if the lion was killed illegally, trophy hunting is legal in Africa, so the ‘illegality’ stems from administrative error on the part of the organisers (deliberate or otherwise), i.e. killing in the improper area or time of year. With that in mind, the internet’s response to Cecil’s death seems misplaced. Most reactions criticize Palmer for being a murderer of a beautiful animal, rather than a criticism for the murder of a beautiful animal outside a rigidly designated murder of beautiful animals licensed hunting space.

People are angry because the high profile of Cecil’s death has raised ethical and legal questions about the permissibility of trophy hunting. However, my view is that much of this anger at what seems to many an outdated and barbarous pursuit is directed towards the person Walter Palmer rather than towards those who allow and facilitate trophy hunting as a legally approved sport.

With that in mind, in this article, I suggest that the public response to the death of Cecil calls for a robust legal answer to provide the boundaries of what is permissible in the world of trophy hunting. It seems prudent to advocate for more rigid protection for animals like Cecil, and for tighter controls on the import and export of all trophy animals.

In addressing this issue, I first detail the media frenzy around Cecil’s death before setting out the facts as I understand them. I explain the Zimbabwean law on the shooting, indicating Palmer’s potential liability, and that of his guide. Here, I also explain Palmer’s domestic liability for the Cecil shooting under the Lacey Act, which prohibits the importation of animals in breach of US law. This is apparently an area in which legal reform would be welcome and I suggest that protesters should channel their energies into this practice rather than spewing bile in the direction of a dentist from Minnesota.

Je suis Cecil: Internet meets Lion.

I personally found the disproportionately large reaction to the lion’s death slightly grotesque. There have been some entirely valid responses; Cara Delavigne’s decision to auction her watch on World Lion Day will raise awareness and funds for animal conservation, for example. Conversely, other celebrity reactions - and that of the public at large – were a little unsettling. Jimmy Kimmel teared up on television in an inspiringly empathetic way. But he also launched into a personal attack on Palmer accusing him of erectile dysfunction and otherwise being a bourgeois scumbag. Bizarrely, Mia Farrow posted the work address of the killer on Twitter in a hostile invasion of privacy. Sharon Osbourne characteristically refused to sit on the fence, branding Palmer ‘Satan’ before suggesting that others should boycott his dental services.

Of course people are entitled to their opinions.  Sharon Osbourne’s do not normally feature on my radar, but that is not an issue. What is worrying about this particular phenomenon is that the public have latched onto the view of Palmer as a hate figure. His dental practice has been vandalized, briefly closed, and he even went into hiding. I do not blame him given statements like this from PETA president Ingrid Newkirk:

Hunting is a coward’s pastime. If, as has been reported, this dentist and his guides lured Cecil out of the park with food so as to shoot him on private property, because shooting him in the park would have been illegal, he needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged.

It is great to see people really enthusiastic about an issue as important as animal conservation but before jumping on the bandwagon, elucidation on the factual and legal elements of Cecil’s death is important.

What happened to Cecil?

Cecil was a Katanga Lion, named after Cecil Rhodes, who lived in Hwange National Park in Western Zimbabwe. On the 15th June 2015, Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, USA paid somewhere in the region of $50-60,000 to Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter and guide in the region. The fee was to facilitate the hunting and killing of a lion in Zimbabwe.

On the 1st July 2015, bait was used to lure Cecil from Hwange National Park to the Gwaai concession some 1,100 yards from the Park according to Jonny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. Here, Mr Palmer shot the lion with a bow and arrow.

Hunting is strictly illegal within the grounds of the national park, however it can be legal outside the park with a hunting concession given by the Zimbabwean government. It is suggested that luring the lion outside the national park and hunting with a bow represents a kind of loophole in the law; the silent nature of bow hunting means that it is highly unlikely that the hunter would be discovered by authorities. It is understood that the bow shot did not immediately kill Cecil. He was subsequently tracked and shot with a rifle by Mr Palmer some 40 hours later.

It is alleged by Mr Palmer that at the time of shooting, he was unaware that Cecil the lion was a figurehead for the national park due to his distinctive size and shock of black mane, nor that he was the subject of an Oxford University research project. Palmer claims that he made every effort to comply with the relevant hunting formalities insofar as he ‘relied on the expertise of [his] local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt’. Mr Bronkhorst echoed this, stressing that:

Palmer is a totally innocent party to this whole thing, and he has conducted and bought a hunt from me that was legitimate.

He continued:

I don't believe I failed in any duties at all, I was engaged by a client to do a hunt for him and we shot an old male lion that I believed was past his breeding age.

I don’t think that I’ve done anything wrong.

Both stories are a little difficult to swallow. Cecil was found by authorities, skinned and decapitated with his GPS tagger missing. Surely the discovery of the GPS tag would have revealed to the hunters that Cecil was special, and that his killing would have been unlicensed in any circumstances. Were they to be as apologetic as their statements suggest, it would seem that the most prudent thing for them to do, rather than skinning and beheading the lion, would be to report the state of affairs to the relevant authorities. The absence of the GPS tracker seems to compound this argument, giving rise to claims that the pair attempted to cover-up the hunt.

Mr. Palmer has previous for misleading the authorities about his hunting practices. In 2008 he pleaded guilty to making false statements about the illegal bow hunting of a black bear in Wisconsin and was fined $3,000. US Attorney John Vaudreuil summarised Palmer’s case bluntly, noting:

He was lying to us. He was offering to pay about $20,000 to keep the others who were in the hunt, to have them lie, so that’s a fairly aggressive cover-up

Regardless, Bronkhorst claims that he intended to conduct Cecil’s hunt legally:

We had obtained the permit for bow hunting, we had obtained the permit for the lion from the council […] [w]e had done everything above board

Zimbabwe National Parks flatly disagree because the removal of the Lion from the National park had not been licensed:

Both the professional hunter and land owner had no permit or quota to justify the offtake of the lion and therefore are liable for the illegal hunt

As a consequence, Bronkhorst and landowner Honest Ndlovu face a prison sentence of up to 15 years if convicted. Bronkhorst has recently posted $1,000 dollar bail after pleading not guilty to a charge of ‘failing to prevent an unlawful hunt’. He will stand trial on 28th September but believes that he will escape any serious punishment labelling the case against him ‘frivolous’ and ‘wrong’. Not being particularly well acquainted with the Zimbabwean justice system, it is difficult to comment meaningfully on the likely result of the case. That aside, the western interest in Cecil seems likely to be influential.

Unlike Bronkhurst, Palmer may totally escape prosecution; he left for his native Minnesota by the time Zimbabwean authorities came for him. However, there have been calls for his extradition to face trial. It is to this issue, and to the law on trophy hunting more generally, to which I now turn.

Legal consequences for Mr. Palmer.

The Zimbabwean environment minister, Opa Muchinguri has requested that Palmer be extradited from the US to face trial for ‘financing an illegal hunt’ and for a breach of Section 123 of The Parks and Wildlife Act which controls the use of bow and arrows in hunting. The White House is also under pressure from an online petition which currently has 235,324 signatures, demanding Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to fully cooperate with the Zimbabwean authorities.

There is a 1998 bilateral extradition treaty between Zimbabwe and America, but it operates only when an individual commits an offence that is criminal in both countries and carries a sentence of more than one year in prison. The US Fish and Wildlife Service are said to be investigating whether any US laws had been broken by Palmer. USFWS deputy chief of law enforcement Edward Grace said that this process was ongoing and that the department ‘will assist Zimbabwe officials in whatever manner requested’. It is worth noting that USFWS proposed listing African lions like Cecil under the Endangered Species Act in October 2014, yet lions are not so listed at present.

Will Palmer be extradited to face a Zimbabwean trial? I do not think so. US-Zimbabwean relations have not been at a high point in the most recent years of Robert Mugabe’s 36 year presidency. Further, no American has ever been extradited since the signing of the 1998 treaty. The dubious human rights record of Zimbabwe certainly does not support the extradition request. Zimbabwean lawyer Alec Muchadehama agrees, noting that:

They (US Courts) may actually doubt the competence of the judiciary here to try him in an objective manner, particularly given the prejudicial pronouncement that the politicians are already making

This point alludes to Muchinguri’s sloppy reference to Palmer as a ‘foreign poacher’ and captures quite accurately the Western apprehension of the prospect of a fair trial in the infamously corrupt Zimbabwe. With this in mind, plus the fact that Palmer may not have committed a crime in the US, he will almost certainly not be extradited for trial.

However, those who have signed the petition for extradition will be cheered by the fact that Palmer may not escape domestic prosecution under the Lacey Act. This act for the protection of wildlife makes it a federal crime to trade in wildlife killed in violation of foreign law.

The 115 year old law may be difficult to invoke in this instance because the law does not strictly apply to hunters who do not import any parts of the animals they shoot. In typical cases, Americans are prosecuted under the Lacey Act when they bring illegally obtained animal parts into the United States. Yet Cecil’s body remains with the Zimbabwean police.

A charge may be sustained under a conspiracy to import parts into the country. This will require the USFWS to review money transfers and correspondence between Palmer and Bronkhorst to show that he was attempting to import Cecil’s body to the US. To put the chances of this being successful in context, a recent charge for conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act was the 2014 Out of Africa Safari Group. The defendants are currently being extradited to face trial in South Africa having sold illegal rhinoceros hunts from an office in Alabama. In that case there was a far more obvious paper trail and a physical connection to the United States, two aspects missing from the Palmer case. It seems unlikely, then that the Lacey Act will apply to Dr. Palmer and that he will escape prosecution by both the Zimbabwean and American authorities.

Many will bemoan the fact that Palmer is not being proverbially, and perhaps literally fed to the lions via Zimbabwean extradition. Yet as I indicated above, those who have publicly condemned him and effectively ended his career as a (probably quite good) dentist are missing the point. Standing against animal exploitation is a great cause, working for conservation and sustainability are great causes. None are served by abusing Walter Palmer. The threats and abuse thrown in his direction are simply expressions of anger at what he represents: the ease with which the rich can pay to gun down wild animals thousands of miles away.

In this article, I take no detailed stance on the moral implications of trophy animal hunting. It is a pastime I do not really understand and would not enjoy, but that does not make it wrong. And naturally, when I saw what amounted to the online bullying of Palmer, I wanted to detach myself from the emotive narrative being spun about him by the Twitterati. Before storming his castle with a fiery torch and pitch fork, I wanted to analyse the issue in stark terms. Having done so, it seems that it is the law on international trophy hunting at issue, not Walter Palmer’s bizarre sporting preferences. To me, the online anger that he still draws breath is an act of transference.

What Palmer did could theoretically have been legal in the region if the correct permits were obtained. I return to my opening comments that those expressing rage about Cecil would better serve their cause if they attempted to affect change in the laws on trophy hunting rather than providing argumentum ad hominem (an argument directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining).

Trophy hunting policy.

An effective method of deterring hunter-tourism could be to prevent the import of lion pelts and heads acquired via trophy hunting by upgrading the endangered status of African Lions. African Lions are not listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act so currently, it is legal in the US to kill and import them. Were the status of the Lion to be upgraded from vulnerable to threatened or endangered then it would be illegal to continue this practice. Kate Dylewsky of Born Free USA recognises that such an import ban would not prevent US citizens from travelling to Africa to shoot lions but being unable to return with a souvenir may deter hunters. This seems plausible based on my limited appreciation of hunting culture as it seems to me that the photo with the kill and the mounting of the head are important aspects of the process to trophy hunters. Not being able to display their kills domestically may remove some of the ‘fun’ from the hunt itself, particularly bearing in mind how much it costs to track and kill any of ‘The Big Five’.

Perhaps a more powerful alternative is the corporate embargo on transporting trophy kills around the world. Kathleen Garrigan of the African Wildlife Foundation is keen to emphasise the impact that private companies, particularly airlines, can have in this debate, affirming that:

The government could take matters into their own hands, but companies have a role to play. If they’re ethically opposed to transporting trophies, they can make a corporate stance against it

The airlines have certainly listened to the media frenzy surrounding Cecil. Following his death, Delta airlines and two other American airways that fly to Africa issued a statement that they will no longer carry any of ‘The Big Five’ trophy animals back to the US (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo). Lufthansa cargo have banned the shipping of endangered animal cargo and Emirates SkyCargo did the same in May of this year. British Airways and Virgin have echoed this in the UK.

Clearly this sends a greater message, and arguably a corporate public condemnation of the practice of trophy hunting. Its impact: the inability to import trophies applies irrespective of the endangered status of the animal in question. It will also apply not simply to the USA but to all locations those airlines fly to. It occurs to me that if the millions of people who tweeted abuse to Walter Palmer were intent on stopping trophy hunting as a practice, raising awareness about the airlines who will import trophies would be a good start.


It is great that the world had such an empathetic reaction to the killing of Cecil the Lion. However as I have explained, much of the media fanfare seemed to focus on a westernized account of his death; rich white man uses technology and gratuitous amounts of money to slaughter beautiful animal in troubled African state. But the truth is that what Walter Palmer did was not significantly worse than that done by the thousands of other trophy hunters in Africa every year. I have suggested that the threats and insults directed towards Palmer would be better placed elsewhere if the goal is to diminish trophy hunting as a past time. First, public pressure should be applied to governments to ensure they have a rigid policy on importing threatened or endangered animals. This will make the practice of trophy hunting a less rewarding one for hunters looking for souvenirs. Secondly, there should be questions asked of those airlines who have not also refused to carry the hides and heads of trophy hunts. If those celebrities, outraged at Cecil’s death were keen to prevent future exploitation of African wildlife by rich westerners, then focusing on these causes should be their mane (sorry) focus.

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Tagged: Criminal Law, International Law

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