Leveraging Lies: How the Antis Spun Cecil

Leveraging Lies: How the Antis Spun Cecil

The morning of July 27, 2015, was a critical moment in efforts to conserve Africa’s wildlife. That morning, 15 newspapers around the world published a story describing the hunting of a lion in Zimbabwe named “Cecil” and naming an American hunter as responsible for his killing. The story was filled with false accusations and inaccuracies, including that the American was hunting illegally and that the lion was lured out of Hwange National Park so that it could be killed. These inaccuracies were seized by anti-hunting extremists determined to inspire moral outrage in an unwitting public and empower the extremists’ global campaign to end all hunting. While repeating the falsehoods from the press accounts, antis also deliberately chose language that equated poaching with legal hunting and created the erroneous impression that hunting was a primary driver of lion declines in Africa. Social media functioned as a strategically critical tool, allowing extremists to multiply the 15 newspaper stories into 695,983 hits within two months time, giving the anti-hunting extremist agenda increased political momentum.

Dangers of Ignoring Global Threats to Hunting
The impact of this disinformation campaign against hunting and African wildlife conservation has been tremendous. In the year since that lion was killed, anti-hunting extremists have been able to leverage the false perception they created among the public to achieve tangible policy goals, including:

  • Securing agreements with 47-plus international air carriers to prohibit the transport of legally acquired African hunting trophies;
  • Enacting a ban on the importation of legally taken African hunting trophies into the State of New Jersey;
  • Enacting a nationwide ban on the importation of legally taken African and Arctic hunting trophies into The Netherlands;
  • Securing bans on the importation of legally acquired African lion trophies into France and Australia;
  • Increasing obstacles for U.S. hunters importing legally acquired African lion hunting trophies into the United States via expanded Endangered Species Act regulations.

Less tangibly, the misinformation around the events of a year ago has inspired legislation and ongoing political debate within the U.S. Congress and European Parliament to prohibit hunters from importing a wide range of African hunting trophies. If this legislation becomes law, anti-hunting extremists will have reached a key milestone in their campaign to end all hunting—worldwide.

Anti-hunting activists are succeeding because they have convinced a large part of the public that ending hunting is essential to ensuring the future of the African lion. A public as eager to conserve wildlife as hunters are has answered the radicals’ sirens call, especially on social media. But has this social media campaigning actually done anything to conserve Africa’s lions?  Like an op-ed in the New York Times on July 1 concluded, the answer is a clear “no.”

Hunting's Key Role in African Lion Conservation
Contrary to the propaganda of animal rights extremists, hunting is an essential component of lion conservation in Africa. This is because conservation is a capital-intensive undertaking and, in many areas, regulated hunting programs are the best and surest way to raise that capital. On conservancies and concessions where lion hunting is allowed, it provides anywhere between 5 to 17 percent of the gross revenues necessary to manage those areas for wildlife habitat. While this may not sound like much money, researchers from the University of Pretoria in South Africa have shown that this revenue is the difference between conservation areas being economically viable and bankruptcy. The anticipated impact of ending lion hunting would be the closure of conservation programs supported by hunting followed by increases in poaching and the eventual conversion of the available wildlife habitat to agricultural use. According to researchers, this could be anticipated to occur over 14,712,160 acres—an area more than six times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Given the extent to which extremists have been able to enact policies that close markets for lion hunting, this scenario is now a very frightening possibility.

This research supports the scientific consensus that hunting plays a valuable role in the conservation of Africa’s wildlife.  This consensus was recently encapsulated in a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to the European Union that stated, in part: “For lions specifically, the most important causes of population declines are indiscriminate killing in defense of human life and livestock, habitat loss and prey base depletion (usually from poaching).”

If wild lions are to survive in Africa it will be because of what hunters do now. It starts with sharing the volumes of stories of how hunters have and continue to play an active and essential role in wildlife conservation. For example, the hunting concern operating in Mozambique’s Coutada 9 has begun restoring a wild lion population in the area after they became locally extinct during years of civil war.

Extremists' Lies Exposed
The false narrative about hunting propagated by animal rights extremists must be actively confronted and disrupted, especially on social media. The general public and decision makers must be made aware of how out of step animal rights extremists are with both the scientific consensus supporting hunting’s value to conservation and the voices of rural Africans who live with wildlife and recognize income from hunting programs gives them a chance to get ahead instead of just get by.

Finally, in an increasingly urbanized world, people are desperate to see wildlife conserved. Hunters must leverage themselves and their conservation programs to provide an outlet for that desperation so it does not lead to radicalization. For example, it has been underreported that the Oxford University scientific study that Cecil was part of was funded in part by Dallas Safari Club, a hunter-based conservation organization. Similarly, Safari Club International Foundation has been funding long term lion research in Tanzania and Zambia that will aid in the species conservation by helping managers better understand what lions need to persist in African wildlands. By taking these steps we can break the stride of anti-hunting extremism and secure a future for wildlife and our outdoor heritage.


About the Author
Catherine E. Semcer is Chief Operations Officer of Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants (H.O.P.E.), a U.S.-based non-profit organization that provides training, advisory assistance and procurement services to African anti-poaching programs by leveraging the skill sets of U.S. veterans and the capacities of commercial businesses. A longtime hunter, Semcer is also a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) Sustainable Use Livelihoods Specialist Group, a global-expert network that promotes both conservation and livelihoods through enhancing equitable and sustainable use of wild species and their associated ecosystems. You can support H.O.P.E.’s efforts to secure a future for Africa’s wildlife by visiting

The opinions expressed here are strictly her own.