It is a hard, perhaps uncomfortable, truth that conservation requires balancing trade-offs. At times, striking the right balance involves engaging with a difficult, inescapable reality in a way that can demand painful compromises. It happens more often than one would think. Sometimes, it is cooperating with governments whose policies towards wildlife, not to mention their own people, leave something if not much to be desired. Sometimes, it is a heartbreaking determination that a population of cats in a particular landscape is so diminished that we cannot ourselves justify allocating resources to try to save the scattered remnants. Sometimes, it means working with people who like to hunt, but can actually help us save specific populations of cats by using their influence to navigate a path with local authorities that we could not otherwise accomplish alone. While the trade-offs seem endless, in all instances we do our best to advance the mission, which is to save the most wild cats that we can within their natural landscapes. Those who know us well understand that, more than any group of people anywhere, we at Panthera live and breathe cat conservation. And I sincerely believe that our focus, passion, dedication and expertise have saved more big cats than anyone else before us.
One of the most charged and vexing challenges that we face is how to deal with the issues surrounding legal trophy hunting, especially that of big cats. Most who share our love for felids desire to see hunting banned outright and everywhere. I am one of those. But I am also likely wrong.
I am told by conservationists I trust and admire that, in certain cases, were it not for the local community buy-in for cat conservation that legal hunting tends to generate through employment, the path of least resistance for those communities might well be to eradicate the cats. For me this is a sad reality, but at the same time the debate is legitimate. Conservationists know that, while legal hunting may be unacceptable to us, it is the conflict between cats and the humans with whom they co-habitate within their landscape, usually over livestock depredation or actual fear of the animals — in addition to human encroachment on their habitat and the killing of the cats’ food sources — that represent the most significant challenges with which we struggle.
That said, let me state the following in no uncertain terms: Panthera does not support or advocate for trophy hunting as a conservation tool. It never has, and never will. Most of us find the idea of hunting cats for sport or entertainment difficult even to comprehend. I myself have not even eaten mammals for decades simply because I cannot bear consuming something that actually has an emotional attachment to its young! So trust me when I say: “I get it.”
But — and here’s that dreaded but — my colleagues and I are passionately committed to the mission of saving as many cats as we can. And that, at times, means we have to transcend our own personal beliefs or positions to keep that larger objective in focus. Allow me to share an example that was quite personal to me. When I started to fund Panthera’s engagement in the Brazilian Pantanal, a vast wetlands sustained in our study area by cattle ranching, implementing our strategy to create a local jaguar “corridor” meant acquiring cattle ranches. In order to ensure that the project would work, we had to keep the ranches functioning even if, as they perennially did, the ranches continued to lose money. Of greater significance to me than the financial aspect was that, by definition, and while we weren’t doing the slaughtering ourselves, this particular activity made us complicit in creating a product that I myself would never consume for philosophical reasons. It was certainly difficult, but given my responsibilities, I understood the trade-offs full well. Providing jobs and ultimately schools to communities that lived off cattle ranching constituted the best assurance that jaguars (previously viewed much more negatively by many local residents because of their predilection to see precious cattle as snacks) would be protected from their human rivals. As jaguars represented the source of the communities’ livelihood, and a better life for the next generation, our work achieved the desired effect. The population of jaguars in the region grew exponentially, creating a new multiplier effect as jaguar tourism ended up transforming the local economy. It’s a case study, and indeed a signature project. Though it was undoubtedly the right thing to do, and I am very proud of what we accomplished, this success came with compromises for which, I confess, I still feel pangs of conscience.
The same dynamics and dilemmas apply to hunting in Africa. Regardless of our personal convictions, Panthera understands the modern-day reality that hunting cats is still legal in a number of countries. Let there be no doubt: we would love to see hunting replaced in every instance by tourism. But there are only so many viable eco-tourism opportunities to be pursued, and we ourselves do not have the resources to buy or otherwise subsidize those operations that need hunters’ revenues to survive. I wish we did, with all my heart. But we just don’t, so we do the best we can. As the leading science-based organization advocating for cat conservation, Panthera is duty-bound to, at the very least, engage where it can with the authorities in those countries to ensure that hunting is strictly managed and proven to not just sustain but indeed maximize wild cat populations.
Which brings us to my good friend, Mark Bristow. Mark has engaged in legal trophy hunting, and, understandably so, howls of outrage have accompanied pictures that show him with trophies of various animals, including cats. Mark and I have argued— passionately and loudly — about hunting over the years. We know where we each stand on the issue and — let me state this clearly — I alone “own” any of the controversy that we see today regarding his membership on Panthera’s Conservation Council. I knew Mark was a hunter when I invited him to join a body that is, for the most part, my creation. I wanted to create a “big tent” for our efforts, with multiple and varied voices that could add new dimensions and further reach to our mission. The Council therefore was built with the explicit intention to seek diversity of views as well as commitment. Adhering to that wonderful Salomonic proverb “as iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend”, I made it a point to populate this assembly with people who do not simply echo my own sentiments or validate my personal positions. I sought out leaders who could, in one way or another, help me make Panthera’s impact even greater.
One of the first individuals to offer his support was Mark Bristow. I have known Mark for many years and I consider him among the most honorable and talented people I have ever encountered. Like scores on the Conservation Council, he is someone I met through activities other than conservation. In this instance, it was business. With other members, the connection might have been related to my other passions, be they in the arts or philanthropic. I am apparently (and very sadly to me) quite unique in enlisting so many of my business and other contacts to help me save wild cats. Conservation is the only sphere of my life in which I am so willing to go outside of my comfort zone...and to put others in a similar position. I would never do it for my business. But, like others who have a real sense of calling, I feel I have no other choice when it comes to cats.
I understood and respected why Mark felt it was best for him and, more importantly, for Panthera, to resign. Yet I accepted his resignation with deep gratitude for the various contributions he made and, yes, with a measure of regret. The way he put it to me both verbally and in writing was as follows: “As a man who believes in the importance of wildlife conservation, and would never wish to be in any way a burden to that all-important mission that I share, I have stepped down from Panthera’s Conservation Council. I strongly believe that legal hunting has a positive role to play in parts of the African ecosystem and that, in some instances, the community buy-in it generates is actually the primary reason why wild cats are not simply exterminated within the landscape that they share with people. Those who do not understand this likely do not understand Africa, where legal hunting and conservation often go hand in hand. I truly applaud the work of Panthera and will continue to support its work wherever I may be of service.”
I have spent more than a decade on the front lines of cat conservation. During that time, few CEOs have been as willing as Mark to extend themselves and their influence in order to help us save large populations of cats. His detractors seek perfection. As I have written, such moral perfection indeed rarely coexists with the reality of actually getting conservation done.
Whatever one may think of hunting, it is a fact that the use of Mark’s considerable stature in West Africa has been helping us secure a vital hunting-free lion landscape in Senegal — with the potential to sustain 50 lions and their prey, truly one of the last remaining prides in a region that once teemed with thousands of lion. He represents the very rare exception among businessmen in my experience; I asked him to take action, and he did. I will always be grateful for being in common cause with Mark and for his friendship. And I sincerely hope that following his example in Senegal, there will be others, and not just in my own group of friends, who will feel inspired to act and choose to help us save as many big cats as we possibly can before it is too late.