The recent death of Cecil the Lion has sparked media outrage and I have watched the story unfold with keen interest. I have been very curious as well as saddened, to learn the facts along with all sides of the argument. For those of you who are not familiar with this story Cecil was a 13 year old Lion who lived in Hwanga National Park in Zimbabwe. He was a kind of celebrity and favourite tourist attraction to those who visited the park over the years. Both because of his indifference to people who were driving by wanting to take pictures of him and because of the story of how he came to be there.
Cecil, named after Cecil Rhodes, and his brother became known to the National park in 2008 when they got into a fight with another pride of lions. This fight resulted in the death of his brother and in Cecil being seriously injured. After that he was forced out of his own pride and so he teamed up with another male lion called Jericho. Together they created their own pride comprised of about a half a dozen female lions and a dozen cubs. Cecil and Jericho became part of a Wildlife Conservation Study run by Oxford University. They both have GPS collars that track their whereabouts. Out of sixty-two lions that are involved in the study which began in 1999, thirty-four have since died. Cecil was particularly identifiable however due to his black mane and visitors to the park knew him well.
Cecil has however become even more famous in the wake of his death. Last June an American dentist called Walter Palmer from Minnesotta hunted and killed Cecil with the help of two other men. These two men were professional hunter guides and Palmer reportedly paid up to 50, 000 dollars to enable him to kill the lion. It is illegal to kill animals in the park so Cecil was believed to be lured out by a dead animal that was tied to the back of the truck that was occupied by these three men and shot with a crossbow. This only wounded the animal and so he was then tracked for forty hours before he was killed by Palmer and his guides with a rifle. They then skinned him and removed his head. Mr Palmer allegedly claimed the head as his prize for killing the animal.
It seems Mr Palmer has collected quite a number of animal heads over the years. His hobby has earned him many trophies which he displays in his home. A number of photos have emerged showing Palmer standing next to an array of wild animals such as a bear, a leopard and another lion. He was previously fined and put on probation for hunting a bear in a protected area. Cecil’s body was only discovered thanks to his tracking collar. Officials at the Zimbabwe National Park claim that the correct permits required to legally carry out the hunt were not obtained. Palmer returned to the U.S. but the two men Theo Bronkhorst and Honest Ndlovu were arrested by the Zimbabwe police. They deny the charge and the trial has been delayed at the request of their lawyers. The police in Zimbabwe have also called for Palmer to be extradited back to Zimbabwe in order to face charges.
When the story came to light in the media it caused outrage. The internet has been alive with messages about the lions death. The Lion King Animator Aaron Blaise made a special tribute to the Cecil and posted it online along with his views on the subject. He even included a quote from the movie underneath to express the sadness he felt. The American comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel included Cecil in his nightly monologue. He condemned Palmer for this brutal act and seemed to tear up while urging Americans to donate money to an organisation that promotes wildlife conservations. He said he hoped that something good would come out of this terrible incident and hoped that people outside of the U.S. didn’t think that all Americans were like this particular individual.
Animal cruelty groups have been up in arms and a call for a ban on trophy hunting has been made. A petition was drawn up and over a million people have signed it so far. The reaction has been so strong that major airlines have banned the shipment of hunting equipment and hunting has been suspended until further notice in Hwanga National Park while an investigation into the quota system is carried out. Cecil’s photo was also one of several images projected on the side of the Empire State building in order to raise awareness of the plight of endangered species.
Relief spread across the internet when photos of Cecil’s cubs alive and well emerged in the last few days confirming they had not been killed. However there are still fears that the cubs will not survive when another male takes over the pride. Palmer has since been forced into hiding. He did however release a public statement where he denied any knowledge of the lions popularity in Zimbabwe and apologised for any upset his actions have caused. In spite of this statement, where he claims that as far as he was aware he did nothing illegal, he has still received countless violent threats and damage to his property. His livelihood seems to be in ruins and he has had to hire security to protect his property from being vandalised any further. Palmer claimed that he relied on the knowledge of the two local men to help him carry out the hunt in a legal manner but this did not seem to win him any favour with the public.
Trophy hunting and hunting in general has existed for many years and although there has always been those who didn’t agree with it, it doesn’t usually receive this kind of negative attention. So why now and why this particular animal? After all no one seems to have expressed as much outrage about the animal who was tied to the back of a truck and used as bait. Or for the countless other animals who are hunted and killed every year.
The BBC recently reported that the people of Zimbabwe feel somewhat bemused by the attention the lions death is getting in the news. They say that there is some confusion as to why this particular story has struck a cord with the rest of the world when their country has largely been left up to its own devices on issues of unemployment, medical care and food shortages. There are also many concerns that this kind of attention could result in a ban on hunting which brings in more than 600 million dollars to the economy every year. Without this injection of funds they would definitely suffer.
Conservationist’s say that banning the practice of hunting will have disastrous affects on wildlife. They say it can be a valuable tool. Hunting quotas which are typically set at 0.5-2% of the population, bring in money that can be used for paying rangers and for the upkeep of national parks or protected areas. Without it they say there is no way to manage the system and no way to control the poaching of animals. According to them either we loose a small number of animals or we loose the whole lot. It’s a difficult balance that they fear could be disrupted by the sudden interest of those who don’t fully understand the system. They hope that this loss will simply raise awareness as well as funds for wildlife conservation and that will lead to better protection for the animals over all.
As well as the negative reaction to the story there are also those who think that the nay sayers are just a bunch of hypocrites. Many of these haters are not vegetarians, they eat meat and they certainly wouldn’t starve to death if they gave it up. The vegetarians and vegans have not been safe from criticism either. According to the other side we humans wear leather and fur, we have destroyed much of the land that the animals need to live on and yet we call our selves animal lovers. Some say we are all just as guilty when it comes to animal suffering as Palmer is.
Perhaps part of the revulsion myself and others felt in this case is that Palmer is a very wealthy individual, from a very wealthy part of the world who kills these animals for his own enjoyment. Americans make up over half of the trophy hunters in Zimbabwe. He displays the animal heads as trophies to show off to his friends with no sign of remorse. He does not need to do it to make a living, it’s for sport and that I can’t seem to wrap my head around. It’s one thing to turn a blind eye but to enjoy the suffering of another seems somewhat different. The pictures of his gleeful face next to dead animals really did turn my stomach. Now when I think of greed I think of those pictures. He seems to have put a face on greed for me anyway. I totally disagree with the witch hunt that has broken out over this incident. I don’t support any violent or vicious ideas that have been posted online about how Palmer should be dealt with or the acts of vandalism that have occurred. But whenever I do think of him I must admit it’s with disdain. I believe he should be made to face the music in court along with the other two men.
Whether or not you were appalled by this incident or you believe the rest of us are all just hypocrites it still begs the question why this particular animal provoked such a strong reaction when the reality is that animals and people, are killed all over the world every day? I came across an article in the Guardian that I think poses an interesting answer to this question. This article suggests that we empathise with Cecil because he had a name. He had a name and a back story and therefore we related to him. He suffered serious injuries and was kicked out of his pride and still survived. He is the under dog or lion in this case. Stories are an important part of building empathy. We cannot empathise with a big group in the same way because it dehumanises them. According to this theory empathy doesn’t operate in this way. It forms between individuals. I responded to this theory because I know myself that stories resonate with me much more than figures or statistics do. Of course I sympathise if I hear that something has happened to a group of people but individual stories evoke more of a reaction in me. I feel more for them. All I know is whenever I see a picture of these tremendous creatures in the future I will think of Cecil, perhaps that’s the reason why.