Thoughts on Cecil From a Frequent Safarigoer

There is a song I love by a South African artist that has been in my head ever since I started hearing the stories about Cecil the lion out of Zimbabwe.  It is not the lyrics, but the beautiful, haunting melody that matches the feeling in my chest.  As you read this article, I invite you to click on this link and hear this song, and you will know what is singing through my chest as I write this.

  • There are estimated 32,000 lions in Africa, and 12,000 in South Africa
  • 665 lion carcass "trophies are exported from Africa each year
  • 49 exported from Zimbabwe in 2013.  17% of Zimbabwe's land is given to trophy hunting
  • However, a Zimbabwean family of 10 might earn $1-$3 a year for allowing hunts on their land.
  • 30-50% of Africa's lion population been wiped out over the last two decades

I have taken literally hundreds of people on safari in Africa, and this horrible Cecil tragedy and outrage has made me really think about the experience, and also about what the people are like who go on safari.  The biggest generalization I can make about them, that is true 95% of the time is this: it's all about the cats. Seeing a lion or leopard is almost always the biggest thrill of a safari. It's usually the main thing people want to see.  Even when I have heard people say that they most want to see elephants or rhinos, as soon as we see a lion, the attitude in the safari jeep is totally different.  EVERY time there is an awe-struck wonder.  It is impressive. Period.

 Zebras seen on safari with Zoom Vacations

Zebras seen on safari with Zoom Vacations

And no one, not ONE of our travelers has ever said, "Wow, that lion is beautiful. I want to kill it."  Ever.  No, in the jeep, the main thing you hear is the clicking of cameras, and, if you are close enough, the lion breathing.  Other than this, we are silent.  There is an unspoken respect, and the silence in the jeep embodies a heaviness that isn't quite there when we see other safari animals like Giraffes, wildebeests, and zebras.

The killing of Cecil has brought safaris, hunting (especially trophy hunting), and poaching to the global stage.  Dialogues are happening around the world that were not happening before, and for some reason, Cecil has gained even more attention than the slaughter of the endangered white rhino, who are poached and viciously killed for their tusks.  

When you go on safari in Africa, the most sought-after safari locations are those that offer the "Big Five".  The term "big five" was given by big-game hunters, referring to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot.  They are the lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. So, ironically, while we are not there to hunt, it is the animals that were many years ago the most difficult to hunt that are considered to be the "main" stars of the safari experience. However, many years ago, when the term "big five" was born, things were quite a bit different, and now it is mainly used for marketing purposes.  It is interesting to note that it is actually the hippo who is responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal. 

When you go on safari, you are not allowed to leave the jeep, unless you stop for evening sundowners (sunset cocktails) in the bush, and your guide and tracker have determined it is safe to leave the vehicle.  You are not allowed to stand up in the vehicle.   Animals you see on safari are not domesticated. They are WILD animals.  However, unlike safari animals 100 years ago, the animals in parks and concessions today are very accustomed to seeing safari jeeps. They see the jeeps and the people in them as kind of big blobs, perhaps much like we see clouds, as innocuous elements that exist in their world, but that don't interfere with them.  This is why we are not allowed to stand up in jeeps. If we do, the animals are able to distinguish us as apart from the jeep.  And they may indeed see us as food.

In wild animal parks worldwide there are specific rules in place to ensure the safety of animals and visitors, the authenticity of the experience in their natural habitat, and a future for many years of similar enjoyment.   When I went to the Galapagos in 2004, for instance, among other rules, we were not allowed to approach animals closer than two meters.

 Bryan trains for the Marathon in Kruger National Park

Bryan trains for the Marathon in Kruger National Park

A few years ago, I was training for the Chicago Marathon, and I had to get several runs in before the big day. I happened to be on safari and the safari lodge was nice enough to follow me in a jeep while I jogged in a safe area in the concession.  I will never forget jogging through the bush looking back and seeing a man with a gun pointed in my direction following me the whole way.  It was a surreal experience, but I digress.  What I found most interesting was that as I jogged through the bush I came upon zebras, impalas and other animals. However unlike earlier in the day when I had seen these animals from the Jeep, and they were completely unbothered by our presence, now as I jogged past them, they saw me as predator and instinctually ran away.

So, you have these wild animals, who are baited from concessions and parks, where they see vehicles all the time, and they are lured quite close to the hunter's jeep and the shot relatively easily.  I am trying to understand the "sport" of this.  The best analogy I can think of, of what happens to lion and other prey killed this way, is that it is the equivalent of a cloud in the sky suddenly opening fire on us. It wouldn't be difficult.

How is this skillful?  How is it macho or brave?  How is it even fun or enjoyable?  How is it anything other than, at best: thievery, and at worst, murder? Juxtapose the killing of Cecil with this video of "lion whisperer" Kevin Richardson, and you will see bravery, and you will see skill.  And more than anything, you will see love.   

One of the other sad things to come out of this is that now hunters in general are getting demonized.  Growing up in Oregon, my dad was a wildlife biologist, and was also a hunter and fisherman.  I remember as a small boy, going spot-lighting with him, which is essentially driving through the country night, with a spotlight aimed into the forest, and counting the many deer or elk eyes you see to get a read of the population.  And, this same man who loved everything about the wilderness and nature would also go hunting, and he would turn the elk into steaks, burgers, sausage, and more, using every part of the animal.  Now, before considering this inhumane, put down your burger or your chicken breast sandwich.  In many parts of the world, including the USA, hunting is legal, regulated, and actually necessary for the health and survival of a species, as overpopulation can lead to disease, and to the depletion of their environment which can make even less animals survive through rough winters. 

But how is this hunting different from hunting Cecil?  Regardless of your views on hunting, trophy hunting, or eating meat or using leather, if everything is true that we are hearing reported, it was done illegally.  It also seems 100% senseless and wasteful, but for most of us, unless you are totally disassociated with the decisions you make in your life, it gives you a lot to think about. Seeing protestors wearing leather jackets, wish signs saying "animal killer" gives me a weird and uncomfortable feeling in my gut.  As did a discussion a few nights ago about Cecil over dinner a few nights ago, when a friend said, between bites of her juicy steak "I just don't understand why someone would want to kill another animal".  She wasn't kidding.

There are all kinds of moral dilemmas that Cecil's death has brought to light, but I hope that conversations don't simply stop with, "why would someone want to kill a lion".  I am not here to tell everyone to become a vegan, but I do encourage a lot of soul searching, so you understand what you are really mad about.  Because otherwise, once a bit of hypocrisy is detected by violators such as the "dirty dentist", it undermines and devalues wildlife conservation efforts, and people like him easily twist it in their minds to be written off as hypocrisy.  The reality is, there are many animal species going extinct at the hand of man, and the one silver lining on the cloud of Cecil's death is that it has brought awareness to this issue.  In fact, after what happened to Cecil, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and United Airlines have now banned the transport of "big five" animals.

His death, and that of many other animals do not have to be in vain, and there are ways you can help.  If you would like to donate to Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, the program that was studying 13-year-old Cecil, to help protect other animals like him, you may go here.

Or, you can click here to learn more about the white rhino and how you can help. 

And, if you want to see, appreciate, and celebrate safari animals the RIGHT way, join Zoom Vacations' safari in Africa.  The only shooting being done will be with your camera.

Supplemental: After I finished writing this article, I youtubed Cecil, and came upon this video of him, in the wild.  If you watch it, you will hear the typical sounds one hears inside a safari jeep, upon seeing these majestic animals that I describe above. 

Bryan Herb writes for Zoom Vacations, a gay vacation company based in the United States. For more information on Zoom Vacations, go to www.zoomvacations.com or call 1.773.772.9666.