Last year a Minnesota man on an African safari legally killed a lion.
The lion had a name: Cecil.
This year another Minnesota man, a college professor, was arrested for illegally smuggling elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns out of Africa. The elephants and rhinos didn’t have names.
Two stories about African wildlife; two different endings.
As you’ll recall, the hunter, the Bloomington dentist who shot Cecil, was relentlessly ridiculed for weeks — nationwide — thanks to national and local news media that seemed to relish a 21st-century version of a mob trial. TV news cameras daily showed protesters descending on his dental office while marching around shouting disparaging words and carrying signs critical of him and hunting. In doing so, they declared their love for Cecil.
The feeding frenzy spread. A few crackpots threatened the dentist’s life and vandalized his property. The Star Tribune even printed a map with directions to his private hunting land. So the protesters could find him there?
Meanwhile, back on campus at St. Cloud State University, a professor of philosophy recently pleaded guilty to dealing in elephant ivory and rhino horns. He agreed to pay a $500,000 fine. He may face three years in prison for smuggling ivory carvings and sending two rhinoceros horns to China.
Illegal poaching of elephants for their tusks and rhinoceros for their horns is the No. 1 threat to these two African animals.
According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, ivory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 elephants in a recent three-year period. In central Africa, the regional elephant population has declined by 64 percent in a decade. All because of the demand for ivory, notably in China.
Africa’s rhinos are in greater trouble. The Western Black Rhino was declared extinct in 2011, primarily because of poaching. The five other subspecies of rhinos are threatened with extinction, three of them critically, because of the relentless pursuit by African native poachers anxious to sell the horns for good money to … well, rhino horn exporters from St. Cloud who make even more money.
On the Asian market, a rhino horn may be worth $60,000 a pound. Why? In Vietnam, for example, powdered horn of rhino is thought to be a cure for cancer and other ills as well as an aphrodisiac.
So what have we learned? We have two Minnesota stories involving African wildlife with two very different reactions from the public: Did anybody march at St. Cloud State to protest the professor’s illegal dealings with poachers? If they did, it didn’t make any headlines. There was hardly a word in TV newscasts or on the radio regarding the professor’s actions and the serious threat to African wildlife posed by poachers or traders of animal parts.
Oh, but when Cecil died, many Americans were led to believe that African safari hunters, especially trophy hunters are evil, right? Anybody need a protest sign?
Do we really believe that sport hunting in Africa (or anywhere else) serves no useful purpose except to pay outfitters and guides? If so, it doesn’t require much imagination to paint a dismal future for wildlife in America. In the decades ahead, America will be more crowded with people, and more developed by agriculture and industry, all of which means less space, less habitat for wild things.
The future of hunting as we know it today is likely doomed as well for many of the same reasons. But if the number of hunters continues to decline, state wildlife agencies along with their wildlife managers and biologists also will decline, including wildlife enhancement efforts. Yet the immediate threat to wild game hunting goes beyond disappearing habitat or expanding human populations.
What really matters at the moment is our ignorance about what really matters to wildlife. For example, a legally killed lion didn’t jeopardize the future of lions in Africa; lion hunting is controlled by permits and regulation. Rather, the big cats face greater obstacles that are not controlled, such as human encroachment on lion habitat.
On the other hand, the ongoing illegal trading of ivory and rhino horns — discovered in St. Cloud, of all places — has and is decimating these animals and their future.
Cecil’s demise caused a furor; the professor’s dirty deeds inspired no protests, no outrage.
As a longtime hunter/conservationist, I find it disheartening to watch good intentions misdirected. Perhaps the next time protesters carry signs declaring their love of wildlife, they’ll go to the right address.
Ron Schara, host of “Minnesota Bound,” is a former Star Tribune columnist.”