The Rhino Horn Trade

My latest investigation with photographer Brent Stirton appears in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic. You can catch an advance view here on

RIP Cecil the Alligator

I awoke to an interesting article on the cover of the New York Times today. A photograph, above the fold, front page, with the bold caption, “Hunting Something That Can Hunt You Back.”

Before studying the dark photograph I assumed it was yet another article on the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. Possibly, it was a story from the hunting industry’s perspective, an inside look to balance the predominantly negative reaction to the apparent poaching of the Zimbabwean lion. History suggests hunting has its place in conservation, but I had an uneasy feeling about the photo caption. “Hunting something that can hunt you back,” hearkens back to Victorian language legitimizing and celebrating the hunting of gorillas.

For more, I was directed to the Sports page. “‘Bama vs. Gators In a Deadly Game” is the story’s title, suggesting real mano a mano stuff, tinged with a bit of college football. It is the story of alligator hunting in Alabama, one of several southern states where it is legal to hunt gators. Once endangered due to over-hunting, the alligator is an Endangered Species Act success story: the US now has millions of alligators, occupying a range that extends from North Carolina down along the cup of all southern coastal states into the east coast of Texas. The gator is not at risk.

Still, after roughly 90 stories in the Times this summer referencing Cecil the Lion, I was surprised the alligator story, which is the cover of the sports page, and a 2-page spread inside, gave only a few sentences to big game hunting, declaring, “The hunting of large animals is a controversial topic, demonstrated this summer in the killing of a lion in Zimbabwe that caused international outrage.” Fair, if bland, enough. But the only anti-hunting voice is given to a kook, an anonymous voicemail caller who said of a gator hunter, “I hope to God somebody hunts her down and hunts her children down and lets her know how it feels to be murdered like that.” –Hardly a voice of reason.

So, here’s what I found disturbing:

When it finally rose, it shot up, snout first, shattering the surface’s calm. More hooks were cast, or a harpoon was jabbed into its side, which usually sent it underwater again, but not for so long. Weakening, the alligator was jabbed again, or its tail or snout was snared in a wire hoop.

Once the alligator was coaxed to the edge of the boat and its size was estimated by everyone on board, the group would agree either to let it go or to shoot it in the back of the head.

You get only one alligator. Make it a good one.

In other words, they snag it, harpoon it, and only then decide whether it’s good enough to shoot. The taking of the biggest carnivores is unusual in nature, and has recently led a group of scientists to dub man a “Super Predator”, a moniker which masks the negative impact of taking the best genes out of nature instead of doing what predators who live in the ecosystems they predate do: take the weak, the young, the sick.

My beef isn’t with the hunting, it’s with the manner of the kill, and its hyperbolic celebration in this piece. This kind of cruelty has no place in America. But the fact that it does, and that it can be celebrated on the front page of the New York Times, tells you how primitive we all can be.