Law & politics

Cecil the lion and the trophy hunting conundrum

Senior Lecturer in Criminology Dr Angus Nurse explores the realities of legal trophy hunting and how it feeds into the illegal killing of rare animals

Dr Angus NurseGreen criminologist Dr Angus Nurse, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University and a member of the Wild Animal Welfare Committee, examines the legal issues surrounding trophy hunting in the wake of Cecil the lion’s death.

The case of Cecil the lion highlights the contentious nature of sport and trophy hunting and attitudes towards wildlife and wildlife crime. Public outrage over the killing of Cecil, a protected lion, in Zimbabwe has included calls from celebrities for the hunter ‘outed’ by the media as an American dentist, to variously: have his citizenship revoked; to lose his home and his practice; and to be prosecuted.

It is important to note that sport and trophy hunting are not inherently illegal. Yet, sport and trophy hunting evoke strong feelings among both supporters and opponents. Public debate about trophy hunting often raises questions of morality concerning the ‘sport’ involved in killing wildlife. There are also debates about if money paid by hunters benefits game animal populations and the local economy. But the uproar over Cecil’s killing also reflects opposition to killing animals for recreational purposes, taking pleasure in the experience of the hunt, and collecting and displaying trophies made of horns, antlers, skulls, tusks or teeth.


The hunting experience is sold by a number of safari or big game hunting tour operators as a means of ensuring that hunters will not only be able to participate in hunting activities but crucially will be able to relive the experience through collecting and keeping trophies. Horns, antlers, skulls, etc. serve as a permanent reminder of the hunter’s ‘victory’ but can also act as a memory trigger. These take the hunter back to his victory and dominance over the animal and allow him to relive the experience. For some, both the act of hunting and the removal and retention of a trophy are explicit acts of dominance and integral to the trophy hunting experience and its continued significance to the hunter. As a result it both appeals to and is marketed at a particular personality type. Trophy hunting’s reliance on species that offer trophy opportunities pits man against wildlife. From an animal rights perspective this is direct abuse of animals of a type that goes beyond simple killing.

Cecil the lion - Photo by Vince O'Sullivan (Creative Commons 2.0)
Cecil the lion – Photo by Vince O’Sullivan (Creative Commons 2.0)

Big game hunting is mainly an African concern, closely associated with wildlife safaris in countries such as Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Twenty-three African countries have hunting industries with the largest in South Africa generating revenues estimated at US$100 million a year from foreign trophy hunters (revenues paid to operators and taxidermists). However, big game ranches exist in other parts of the world and animals have been brought, for example, from African and Asian countries to the United States to populate legal ranches and safari parks. Claims have also been made that (largely via captive-breeding) some species considered to be endangered and possibly extinct in the wild are available for hunting in US ranches.

Hunting safaris are usually sold in packages based on the key ‘Big 5’ prized species: the rhino, the elephant, the leopard, the lion and the Cape buffalo. But some rarer antelope species are also prized by hunters. Many of these species are prevented from being traded due to their protected status under endangered species legislation. But they can be legally shot in certain circumstances in African countries where populations are considered by local authorities to be stable and well managed, and where there is economic benefit in allowing a certain level of hunting. Indeed, the Cecil case shows how professional hunting companies provide commercial hunting trips to Africa, offering big game shooting experiences for consumers from anywhere in the world willing to pay for an ‘authentic’ wildlife safari. As a result, trophy hunting has become a legitimate form of sport tourism, separate from the illegal acts of poaching. It also adds to the economy of African or sub-continent countries, where the exploitation of such natural resources has become an economic (and sometimes political) necessity.

The killing of a lion with the right permits could actually be legal. Potentially it is this reality which people are really objecting to.

Illegal trade

However, research indicates that illegality and corruption are endemic in the sport and trophy hunting industries. Separate from the lawful killing of small numbers of animals carried out under permit and quota systems, a wider problem of illegal killing of protected animals and collection or harvesting of their parts for trophies or animal products exists. Trophy hunting thus risks contributing to other illegal trades and has implications beyond its immediate animal harm activities. As with other areas of wildlife ‘crime’ the legal and the illegal can co-exist. Allowing animals to be killed for sport and trophy purposes risks entrepreneurs wishing to make larger profits finding a way to bypass any regulations and further develop the hunting market. But even where strict prohibitions on killing protected animals are in force, individuals who want to will continue to break the law.

The calls for prosecution of Cecil’s hunters have already resulted in the Zimbabwean hunters appearing in Court. Prosecuting wildlife crimes is often difficult and, in the case of Theo Bronkhorst and Honest Ndlovu, the prosecution is for conducting an illegal hunt and not for the act of killing the animal itself. While killing without the right permits would fit most definitions of a wildlife crime, the killing of a lion with the right permits could actually be legal. Potentially it is this reality which people are really objecting to.

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