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CECIL Act threatens successful wildlife conservation efforts in African countries

The CECIL Act, name after the lion killed by a hunter in 2015, would prohibit American hunters from importing animals harvested through legal, regulated means.

I work on community-based natural resource management issues affecting my home country of Namibia, and the rest of Africa. I have serious concerns about the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act, or “CECIL Act,” being considered by the U.S. Congress.

Putting aside the fact that Africans do not name our wildlife and that the mystique around “Cecil the lion” was created by Western tourists, this bill carrying the lion’s name would prohibit American hunters from importing animals harvested through legal, regulated hunting. This would dramatically disincentivize Americans from patronizing hunting outfitters across Africa.

The CECIL Act, therefore, would rob African countries and local tourist economies of irreplaceable revenue that currently funds multifaceted and successful wildlife conservation programs. The loss of these funds would jeopardize the health of the very species that the Act’s supporters are claiming to protect. 

In Namibia, it is actually called “conservation hunting,” and there is a moratorium on hunting bans written into our constitution. Almost 80 percent of our population depends on subsistence farming for at least a part of their living. Since most Namibian wildlife roams freely outside national parks, human-wildlife conflict drives many of the problems our communities face and that we deal with as conservationists.

For example, elephants frequently raid crops and terrorize villages, while predators such as leopards and lions kill livestock in rural communities that depend on the animals for sustenance. This conflict is a major threat to conservation because it incentivizes more poaching. Without deriving an economic benefit from the presence of wildlife, farm and ranch land will encroach on more habitat, spurring on more human-wildlife conflict and the resulting poaching.

Our regulated system of hunting, however, breaks this cycle by changing people’s perception of wildlife from a threat to an asset. This vision has been pioneered in Namibia. It is no secret that international tourist hunters pay many thousands of dollars to hunt strictly selected specimens, as informed by annual scientific population surveys and enforced by our local conservancy’s boards, Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Namibia Professional Hunting Association. The money that these hunters pay is overwhelmingly reinvested into the conservancies of that region, funding critical infrastructure such as water and electrification, creating employment opportunities and even direct payment compensation to farmers who have suffered losses.

As a result, Namibia is able to more broadly tackle both habitat loss and poaching, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature has long considered the two largest threats to wildlife. As a result of a well-managed, legal hunting system, our country has been able to maintain 86 conservancies that contribute conservation efforts of Namibian land overall that equals almost 50 percent of our country.

Furthermore, by increasing wildlife’s monetary value, landowners see protection of their land for wildlife habitat as financially competitive with agricultural development. Almost a third of our land under current conservation efforts was designated as such by local communities for this very reason. Meanwhile, hunters’ money funds conservancy rangers and National Parks staff, who bravely serve on the front lines to defend against poachers.

If the CECIL Act, however, were to become law, then all these systems that have improved wildlife populations across southern Africa would crumble. This is not a guess; it has been supported by ample scientific data, such as in a comprehensive biological conservation study done by Robin Naidoo in 2015. This study showed that a “simulated ban on hunting significantly reduced the number of conservancies that could cover their operating costs” and that failing to incorporate hunting into a conservation strategy “would reduce the value of wildlife as a competitive land‐use option and have grave repercussions for the viability of community‐based conservation efforts in Namibia.”

In 2018, a case study of lion import restrictions in the United States from Tanzania showed that the result was that, “Hunting blocks (were) abandoned, and habitat loss increased.”

Despite these proven results, many in America and throughout the West insist on pushing legislation like the CECIL Act that tells Africans that we are wrong in how we manage our wildlife and that we must do things differently. This is a colonial mentality that completely ignores our on-the-ground reality and our right to sustainable development. The officials behind the CECIL Act know that while hunting may be unappealing to them, it is an industry that cannot be replaced with something like photo-tourism that requires easily accessible terrain and infrastructure uncommon in rural Namibia. Hunters go to places where photo-tourists would never dare to venture.

I have been working in these communities with their beautiful people and unique cultures for more than 15 years, and that experience begs me to tell every American that we need less discussion about the CECIL Act and more empowerment of the African voices and heroes who fight every day for a more-productive relationship between wildlife and humans.

BY: Maxi Louis - Director of the Namibian Association of Community Based Natural Resource Management Support Organizations, representing 86 conservancies and more than 200,000 people.