Cecil the lion's killing sparks unprecedented global backlash

The shooting of Cecil the lion by an American trophy hunter has led to new action from New Jersey to the United Nations to protect endangered animals.

A.J. Loveridge/Handout/Reuters/File
Cecil the lion is seen at Hwange National Parks in this undated handout picture received July 31, 2015. The shooting of Cecil the lion by an American trophy hunter has led to new action from New Jersey to the United Nations to protect endangered animals.

Cecil the lion may have died an ignoble death – but his slaughter at the hands of an American dentist is prompting action from the United States Senate to the United Nations.

Cecil’s killing is certainly not the first time an African lion has died for sport. But the global outrage it has spawned underscores how rising sensitivities about wild animals, the growing menace of poaching and international trade in animal parts, and social media have intersected to create an international cause for action.  

On Friday, a group of Democratic senators introduced legislation – named after the black-maned lion – that aims to curb the practice of trophy hunting.

That initiative followed passage of a resolution at the UN General Assembly Thursday calling for heightened global cooperation to stem the rising trade in animal parts, particularly of coveted but increasingly threatened African wildlife.

Cecil, a well-known and collared resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, was killed by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer after the cat was lured out of his protected habitat and shot – first with an arrow, then with a gun. Mr. Palmer then beheaded Cecil, the subject of many tourists’ and researchers’ videos, to mount the head as a trophy.

Zimbabwean authorities have labeled Palmer a “foreign poacher” and are seeking his extradition. Palmer, who remained in seclusion in the US as a result of the uproar, has said he did not know Cecil was a protected animal.

That Cecil, killed earlier this month, so quickly became such a well-known lion reflects the growing global alarm over threats to Africa’s iconic wildlife. Elephants have been killed by the tens of thousands in recent years as poachers seek their tusks for growing ivory markets, while rhinoceroses have been slaughtered to the verge of extinction for their coveted horns.

International efforts to stop the slaughter and stem the illegal trade in animal parts have been growing. Last week, President Obama used his visit to Kenya to announce new measures to cut off the ivory trade to the US, the world’s second-largest market for ivory after China. Mr. Obama’s action was quickly followed by the widely publicized poaching of a female elephant and four of her calves in a Kenyan refuge.

But the outpouring of initiatives in response to Cecil’s death appears unprecedented.

At the UN, the General Assembly approved measures aimed at curbing money laundering tied to poaching and directed Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to study the problem and propose additional actions next year.

“The time to act is now,” Germany’s ambassador to the UN, Harald Braun, told the 193-member assembly. “No one country, region, or agency working alone will be able to succeed” in tackling what he said had become an urgent global issue.

The Senate legislation, authored by Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey and cosponsored by three other Democratic senators, would extend existing restrictions on the import and export of officially listed endangered species to animals begin considered for inclusion under the Endangered Species Act – like lions.

The legislation is called the Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act – or the CECIL Act.

“Cecil’s death was a preventable tragedy that highlights the need to extend the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” Senator Menendez said in a statement Friday. “When we have enough concern about the future of a species to propose it for listing, we should not be killing it for sport.

American hunters are responsible for about half of the trophy killings of elephants and lions, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a London-based global organization for animal protection and welfare.

Even state legislators are getting into the act.

In New Jersey, a law proposed in the aftermath of Cecil’s death would ban the import of endangered or threatened species through Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty airports, the three airports managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

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