The true tragedy of Cecil the lion the media has overlooked

Behind the scenes, the politically connected Safari Club International has been waging war on African wildlife

Published January 15, 2016 8:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Andy Loveridge)
(AP/Andy Loveridge)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet When Walter Palmer, a wealthy dentist from Minnesota, killed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last July, people all around the word were sickened and outraged.

Action was quick. After the news broke, late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel used his monologue to read Palmer the riot act, then helped raise $150,000 in donations in less than 24 hours to support Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, the Oxford, U.K.-based nonprofit that had been tasked with tracking Cecil's location and activities. Within a month, thanks to pressure from the Humane Society of the U.S., American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines announced bans in the transport of “trophies” (i.e., animal parts) from Africa’s so-called big five species: the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard and white/black rhinoceros.

Beyond these specific achievements, a silver lining to emerge from Cecil’s tragic killing has been the dramatic increase in the global awareness of the obscenity of trophy hunting. “Dr. Walter Palmer has done something worthwhile after all,” wrote Capt. Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and former star of Animal Planet's “Whale Wars,” in a Facebook post. “His special combination of vanity, smugness, greed, arrogance and stupidity has taken something which happens all the time, usually out of sight and out of mind, and has elevated it to international recognition.”

But while the salughter of African wildlife has been elevated to the global stage as never before, there is a larger story behind Cecil’s death that has largely been overlooked by the media. That story is the role played by Safari Club International (SCI), a stealthy and powerful pro-hunting group that masquerades as an organization dedicated to “promoting wildlife conservation,” according to its mission statement.

Wildlife conservation could not be further from the truth of what SCI does. In fact, SCI’s activities — both in the wild and on Capitol Hill — have had a destructive impact on wildlife and wildlife policies on the state, federal and even international levels. With some 50,000 members, 150 chapters and over$10 million in revenue ($3 million from annual membership dues and another $7 million raised from its annual convention), Safari Club International exercises a substantial amount of lobbying power, shaping anti-wildlife conservation policies that only satisfy trophy hunters’ bloodlust, negatively impacting wildlife on a global scale.

In Africa, SCI has been a longtime driving force in the sustained killing of the continent’s lions, contributing to the species’ sad, rapid decline: A loss of more than 50 percent of the lion population over the last three decades alone. Today, there are fewer than 40,000 African lions left in the wild. And even though two-thirds of them remain unprotected, SCI has for many years worked to block the conservation efforts of several wildlife protection groups seeking to list the lion as endangered. Thankfully, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recentlyannounced the African lion will be protected under the Endangered Species Act, a ruling that will go into effect in February.

The nonprofit In Defense of Animals describes SCI as “the most ruthless trophy hunting organization.” On its website, IDA describes the activities of the group:

Clearly leading the list of voracious hunting clubs with an appalling callousness towards wild animals worldwide, is the Safari Club International (SCI), a hunting advocacy group that promotes competitive trophy hunting throughout the world, even of rare species, and not shying away from canned hunts, through an elaborate awards program. The SCI continues to create and feed a culture glamorizing death and violence globally, across political lines, international borders, and against wildlife and even people. Fortunes are made on the back of millions of animals, whose lives are taken by trophy hunters for the sake of killing in an endless spiral of competition....

Most people would be shocked to learn about the length these wildlife killers go to legally (and illegally) murder the largest, most beautiful and “exotic’ animals—the rarer the animal, the better....

SCI responded to Cecil’s killing by suspending the memberships of Palmer and Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter and guide who helped Palmer slaughter the lion, stating, "those who intentionally take wildlife illegally should be prosecuted and punished to the maximum extent allowed by law." Indeed, the law is so important to SCI that it has devoted significant time and financial resources to change it in its favor. Primarily through its political and legal arm, the Department of Hunter Advocacy, SCI is knee-deep in state and federal legislative and judicial battles over how legal hunting is defined and regulated. “SCI lobbyists are a fixture in Washington,” In Defense of Animals reports. “Members are urged constantly to pressure their Congressional representatives for less wildlife protection and more hunting leniency, which is what concerns the SCI and nothing else.”

In 1981, SCI, in cahoots with the National Rifle Association, argued against measures intended to strengthen the Lacey Act, a 1900 United States law that bans trafficking in illegal wildlife, such as the inclusion of a felony penalty. More recently, SCI worked closely with Rep. Dan Benishek (R-MI) in crafting the pro-hunting bill H.R.1825. The bill, which was introduced in 2013, stalled in the Senate. It has been backed by the NRA and the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, both of which, like SCI, wield significant influence on Capitol Hill. In addition to being criticized by environmental groups, the bill has been slammed by some pro-hunting conservation groups like the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and Wilderness Watch for seeking to gut provisions in the Wilderness Act designed to keep some federal lands “untrammeled by man.” That same year, SCI introduced more than 20 pro-hunting bills to Congress.

But beyond its lobbying work, what is most distressing about SCI, as Sea Shepherd's Paul Watson points out, is how the group glorifies a culture of death by celebrating the slaughter of animals — a ritual supported by an elaborate system that rewards killing. He writes:

What is truly despicable about this organization is that it encourages slaughter through awards. SCI’s record book system ranks the biggest tusks, horns, antlers, skulls and bodies of hunted animals. Hunters are rewarded with trophies for completing a “Grand Slam.”

There are 15 “Grand Slams.” The ones that cover Africa are:

  • The African Big Five Club (African lion, African leopard, African elephant, African buffalo and an African rhinoceros.
  • “Dangerous Game of Africa” (requires a minimum of five from the African lion, African leopard, African elephant, African rhinoceros, African buffalo, Hippopotamus and Nile Crocodile)
  • “African 29” (African lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, and a small cat, eland, bongo,kudu, nyala, sitatunga, bushbuck, sable antelope, roan antelope, oryx/gemsbok, waterbuck, lechwe, kob or puku, reedbuck or rhebok, wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, gazelle, pygmy antelope, springbok, dik-dik, bush duiker, forest duiker, nubian ibex, aoudad, hippopotamus, and wild pig)
  • “Cats of the World” (minimum of four of: lion, leopard, cheetah, jaguar, cougar, lynx, cougar or puma, serval, carcal, African golden cat or bobcat)

...There is the Hunting Achievement Award that requires a minimum of 125 animals, or 60 if hunting with a bow. And for women they have the Diana award, given to women who “have excelled in international big game hunting.” And finally there is the obscenely named “World Conservation & Hunting Award,” given to hunters who have killed on six continents and have killed more than 300 species. This “esteemed” award goes to the killer who has taken all 14 Grand Slams, the 23 Inner Circles, Pinnacle of Achievement (fourth) and the Crowning Achievement Award.

It is this award system that is driving thousands of wealthy primarily white men and a few women to spend millions of dollars stalking animals around the world for the sole purpose of killing the in the name of vanity and self-glorification.

In his book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, Matthew Scully, who calls himself a “pro-life vegan conservative” addresses SCI's unethical and illogical argument that sport hunting is a necessary form of population control. It is a truly speciesist argument if there ever was one, giving Homo sapiens primacy over all other sentient beings.

Scully writes:

Wildlife, we are constantly told, would run loose across our towns and cities were it not for the sport hunters to control their population, as birds would blanket the skies without the culling services of Ducks Unlimited and other groups. Yet here they are breeding wild animals, year after year replenishing the stock, all for the sole purpose of selling and killing them, deer and bears and elephants so many products being readied for the market. Animals such as deer, we are told, have no predators in many areas, and therefore need systematic culling. Yet when attempts are made to reintroduce natural predators such as wolves and coyotes into these very areas, sport hunters themselves are the first to resist it. Weaker animals in the wild, we hear, will only die miserable deaths by starvation and exposure without sport hunters to control their population. Yet it's the bigger, stronger animals they're killing and wounding — the very opposite of natural selection — often with bows and pistols that only compound and prolong the victim's suffering.

While the sport hunting of animals is unnatural, it is also exceedingly unfair. Marc Bekoff, a renowned animal behaviorist biologist who specializes in non-human cognition and emotion, is on a mission to help people understand that animals have many of the same feelings humans do, and that understanding should be the basis for our ethical treatment of them.

“Hunting and fishing involve killing animals with devices (such as guns) for which the animals have not evolved natural defenses,” he writes in his bookAnimals Matter: A Biologist Explains Why We Should Treat Animals with Compassion and Respect. “No animal on earth has adequate defense against a human armed with a gun, a bow and arrow, a trap that can maim, a snare that can strangle, or a fishing lure designed for the sole purpose of fooling fish into thinking they have found something to eat.”

Beneath the lack of fairness and morality and the appalling level of cruelty of sport hunters lies something quite basic — and ultimately pathetic. The late novelist John D. MacDonald knew something about the minds of psychopathic killers. In his 1965 novel A Deadly Shade of Gold, he addressed the arrested emotional development of sport hunters, bluntly stating, “It is the search for balls.”

Sadly for the world’s wildlife, that search has a powerful ally in Washington: Safari Club International.


By Reynard Loki

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Salon, Truthout,, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

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Africa Alternet Cecil The Lion Jimmy Kimmel Wildlife Wildlife Conservation Research Unit