We may not have been able to save Cecil the lion from Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist, who hunted him down for a trophy, but that doesn't mean we can't do more to protect wildlife here at home.
The US is home to a variety of iconic native carnivores such as grizzly and black bears, wolves and our own American lion: the cougar. Not unlike Zimbabwe, state and federal officials in the US have failed to adequately protect these top carnivores from extreme persecution, and too often, trophy hunters who poach receive only light sentences. Just three years ago, Yellowstone's most famous wolf, 832F, the alpha female of the Lamar pack, was killed just outside of the Park's protective boundaries. Biologists who studied her said she spent 95 percent of her time in the park, suggesting that like Cecil, she was similarly lured to her death with bait by the outfitters who killed her.
Every year outfitters privately profit from the sale of guiding wildlife-hunting trips. Their well-heeled clients, the trophy hunters, shell out tens of thousands of dollars, kill thousands of our most iconic and charismatic native American carnivores including cougars, wolves, bears and bobcats. These hunters use some of the most barbaric and unsporting methods - which vary by species and states - but include bait, traps, neck and foot snares, electronic distress calls, packs of radio-collared dogs, high-powered scopes and snowmobiles. These methods are not "fair chase" hunting, the cornerstone of ethical hunting whereby animals should be given an equal chance to survive. Because wildlife have only their wits and their feet to evade these armies of well-armed trophy hunters, they have little chance. Because trophy hunting and poaching are so pervasive in the US, these animals face a precarious future.
Myriad studies show that trophy hunting is not only the leading cause of death for top carnivores in the US, but it also leads to social chaos in their populations, which results in further, indirect mortalities, particularly for dependent young animals like cougar kittens, black bear cubs and wolf pups.
Our wildlife management system must evolve from a system that caters to trophy hunters to one that that truly conserves top carnivores. We should be creating more refuges and national parks for them, in addition to creating safe passages for dispersing individuals between populations to avoid the loss of genes leading to inbreeding. Above all we need a democratic system that does not cater to the trophy-hunting industry. Crimes should be met with more than just a simple slap of the wrist.
States should commit more resources to wildlife wardens, garner the will to enforce felony poaching violations penalties and prosecute perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law. State lawmakers must appoint boards that also represent the public majority, and decision makers must end the most egregious and unfair methods of killing, including the use of traps, bait and hounding.
Maintaining protections for top carnivores is economically sensible. When top carnivores are in their habitats, they can perform their "ecosystem services", that is, change the environment through their feeding behaviors, which makes their habitats - and ultimately the planet - thrive. Furthermore, whole communities benefit when large animals are kept alive for wildlife-watching tourism and are an annual multi-million dollar boon to places like Yellowstone, where wildlife watching, not trophy hunting, is what draws tourists and their dollars.
Wildlife is worth far more alive - both economically for local communities and biologically for their habitats - when they thrive, and are not hung above someone's fire place. Federal and state governments should be doing more to protect these animals before it's too late.
Nicole Paquette is vice president of wildlife protection for The Humane Society of the United States.