A refusal to mourn the death, by arrow, of a lion in Zimbabwe.
I figure this is gonna alienate a lot of readers, but I need to comment on my take on the whole "Cecil" media sh!tstorm.
As anybody who has to open a website browser in the last two weeks would know, some American dentist shot a lion in Zimbabwe who turned out to be a minor celebrity to the visitors to a nearby national park. The lion may have been lured out of the park by baiting (the normal lion hunting technique) and the guides involved were arrested for irregularities in the way the cat was killed and for trying to hide his radio tracking collar. The hunter claims he did not know of the lion's celebrity and was certain that he had all the permits and licenses.
In the following days after the story hit the internet, a growing mob mentality of violent hatred towards the dentist in particular, all hunters in general and all of humanity in general (except the vitriolic posters and their like-minded ilk, of course) has dominated the media and headlines. Airlines have suddenly announced they will no longer transport hunters or their trophies, calls have come for the extradition, prosecution, castration, beheading and immolation of the dentist, causing his business to be closed and the person to go into hiding while the authorities investigate the many death threats.
"Cecil" the warm and fluffy mascot for the rabid animal-rights movement has now replaced Bambi's mom as the great Martyr to the cause, generating unknown hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising and donations to groups that have little, or nothing, to do with environmental work and conservation in Africa or elsewhere. Despite the fact that the fast majority of the people here in North America and Europe never even heard of the critter before a few weeks ago, he has now, in death achieved a status rivalled by the assasination of Dr. Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy.
I say, respectfully, Screw "Cecil"...
Not the lion who died, the leader of a pride who had managed to double his dominance past the average (more on that later) and the occasional target of camera viewfinders but the mythological entity which we have fabricated in order to serve our prejudices and allow us to wallow in hatred.
There is nothing more addictive than righteous rage. Especially when we can find a target for hatred that cannot fight back. The indignation at the stereotyped "coward with the high-powered rifle" is more than matched by the mob mentality that attacks those who have no chance against the zombie-hordes who vent their spleen from the anonymity of the keyboard and call for the torture of a human being for being not "one of us". The internet has become the Alabama lynch mob, the window-shattering "Krystalnacht" gang who strike from the shadows of impunity.
Regards the Lion. "Cecil" was a male of some 13 years of age, and the dominant male of an established pride in a protected setting. However, this protected park area was also on the border of both tribal lands and ranching areas (including the property where the lion was killed). Normally, a lion has a lifespan of about twelve to eighteen years in the wild, of which the years of four to eight or nine are critical. These are the breeding years when the lion will, if successful, be dominant over a pride and raise generations of his young. Normally, at about eight years or so, age will take its toll and a younger male will take over, either one of the lion's cubs or another solitary male from outside. At that time, the cubs will be killed by the new male in order to bring the females into heat again, thus ensuring the genetic success of the new breeding male. The fact that "Cecil" was still a dominant male was part of the reason that he was the subject for study and thus his death was even noticed. What has not been mentioned is why he was, after eight or more years, still in charge.
In order not to disturb the balance of pride dynamics, countries with lion hunting do not allow the killing of any male under the age of eight, requiring the guides to become very familiar with aging techniques that many biologists find challenging. At 13 years, this particular lion was not only normally a solitary male, pushed out of his pride years ago, but a very likely candidate for cattle killing or even Maneating.
Yes, it does exist, as a matter of fact, the trait is quite common, especially in areas where lions become accustomed to human presence and age prevents them from hunting properly. Sometimes it's just normal behavior. Kruger National Park, for example, along the South African/Mozambique border, became quite the haven for maneaters. Photogenic pussycats by day, predators of wartime refugees illegally entering South Africa by night. We two species evolved alonside each other, after all. Large cats hunt primates, primates assault cats with projectile weapons; we just got better at it in the last few hundred years.
So, quite frankly, not only was "Cecil" to be seen by a conscientious and knowledgeable hunter as a proper target, under normal circumstances, this would be the cat you should shoot.
Ah, but hunting and hunters are evil, right? All of them, especially the rich guys, and the rednecks and the teenage cheerleaders that betray women's place as the saviors of Gaia... Sure, we'll allow a few remaining aboriginal people to feed themselves, unless they live somewhere picturesque that we want for a "ecotourist" playground. And hunters always do what they do for bad reasons, right? To show off some outdated macho ideal of flagging masculinity, or to be cruel as entertainment, or.. well something bad. Not like good people, the vast majority of people (which is the definition of good, BTW, conformity) who love lions and hate people who aren't like "us". Then you can call for things to be done to the outsider that would make ISIS members cringe. After all, the interesting thing is that both the hunter and the hunted are similar in one way to the mob... they are voiceless things that we can project our fantasies onto. The lion becomes the majestic symbol of the wild that "WE" have allowed to exist and the hunter becomes the irredeemable orc horde of fantasy that you can do anything you want to without guilt or shame.
In Zimbabwe, however, where there is 80% unemployment and 10,000% hyperinflation, the perception is a little different. To them, the rich white guy from Oklahoma is the guy who pays to visit, uses a lot less resources and has a smaller "ecological footprint" than the snobbish elites in their zebra-painted safari vans, and who benefits the local rural populations directly. Unlike the "ecotourist", most of his money stays in the area, instead of primarily benefiting some agency back in London or New York (which usually retain about 80% of the moneys for tourism in Africa) and are directly channeled into local schools and services. Under the "CAMPFIRE" program, the meat from all animals (except, regrettably large cats) MUST be given to the local population, who are more than appreciative of the scarce protein and will walk for tens of miles to the site of a kill.
Remember, this is in the rural areas. Areas tourists decline to go to. I mean, picturesque tribal people in traditional regalia (that is, the actors who play the role of safe savage for the camera), well yes, but to travel half-way around the world to see struggling farmers and dense thorn brush? Only some guy from Oklahoma would do that. And yet this is where the value, albeit smaller in dollar figures than "ecotourism", comes into work. To a Zimbabwean farmer, "Cecil" is a large dangerous animal that could just as easily eat your livestock or family. Elephants are gigantic crop pests that wipe out a year's work in a night. For someone living on about $100 a year, wildlife has only the value you can perceive from it directly. All well and good to blithely call for absolute protection for wildlife from the safe and privileged cites of the West, but in a nation where life hangs in a precarious balance, and where three chickens can be traded for an AK-47, or poison or a wire snare, the animals need more value than just photographic. So there's either the dentist's trophy fees (which mean schoolbooks for the local teacher, mosquito nets to prevent malaria and repairs to the well pump), or there's the situation in Kenya.
Kenya outlawed ALL hunting in 1975, for "sport" or food. Tourists flock from all over the world to go on safari through the majestic and beautiful national parks that are, justly, considered World Natural Heritage Sites. Outside the boundaries of these artificial Disneyland:East Africa zones, however, the story is much different. Instead the rest of Kenya is a free-fire zone. The 1975 hunting ban, hailed by anti-hunters world-wide at the time, was instead the cover for the widespread poaching of ivory directly involving President Jomo Kenyatta, whose daughter (then Mayor-for-life of Nairobi) just also happened to be the president of the largest ivory export company in Africa. Government corruption is still part of the problem, as is the proximity of Somalia (just where did you think those pirates and warlords got the money for all that lethal Russian hardware?) and a whole slew of various political and criminal factions who have slaughtered the wildlife outside the heavily-guarded parks (and who are now slipping in to loot those as well). WWF and other groups have criticized the efforts of the Kenyan government to deliberately downgrade or conceal the numbers of large animals illegally killed in order to maintain the facade of 'nation as preserve'. To many of the rural people in Kenya, though, those who aren't already active in the illegal wildlife trade, the issue is none of their business. All it means is fewer pesky critters in your drought-crippled fields, less competition for your livestock on the grasslands, and less fear when you walk home from town during the evening hours. This is not an absolute, but there is little indigenous inclination to care about loss of wildlife.
But why can't the funds just be spent without the killing? Interesting notion. International aid is a complex and truthfully, screwed-up business, often run more for the benefit of the "donating countries" than the recipients, hampered by corruption at the upper echelons locally and often somewhat negligible in local benefit, as opposed to direct receipt of moneys from certain specific programs such as hunting. Very few photographers are willing to pay thousands of dollars to take one photo of an animal, and the four-star demands of those on their romantic vacations (drawing on local water supplies, influencing wildlife behavior and forcing people off their lands) do not meet the needs of the local peoples. Studies (usually by anti-hunting environmental groups) show a vastly larger amount of money and numbers of jobs are derived from photographic tourism, but again, for who and where? Photo safaris only stay in specific photogenic areas, much of the money does not stay in the country and many of the jobs are for people from the large cities. In other words, the benefits are primarily for those who do not have to live with the wildlife.
There's nothing I really want to say about the morality or immorality about hunting itself, though. It's a zero-sum argument for the most part. People approve of it, hate it or don't have a real opinion and like most issues these days, it's so polarized it bears no discussion. Many people agree that hunting for food is okay, and trophies are distasteful and that seems to be the main agreement. The problem is, nothing is clear-cut even with those notions. For example, hunting for food often means the use of techniques that many people dislike, such as trapping, snaring, poison, baiting, etc. that are efficient ways of killing without extra effort or personal danger. "Trophy hunting" is a nebulous concept. If you shoot an elk, eat the whole animal, use the skin for leather but STILL hang the head or antlers on the wall, are you a trophy hunter? If you shoot an elephant and every scrap of it is eaten or used, including the intestines, fat, skin, etc. leaving only a red patch on the grass, but customs regulations prohibit bringing the meat home so instead you feed the people whose field have been raided by the same animal.... what kind of hunt was that? Do we employ the Kantean approach of questioning what the primary and tertiary motives of the hunter were? Or do we embrace the "realpolitik" of the results?
This will be the results, I fear.
Botswana succumbed to pressure, primarily from British Environmental groups to end lion hunting in the late 1990s. The same groups promised that ecotourism would more than make up the difference. Additionally, tourist-friendly destinations, such as the Okavango Delta were closed to all hunting as was the Chobe National Park, (made famous as the place where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton spent one of their many honeymoons in the 1960s). The results are these. Almost three times as many lions have been killed legally each year since by farmers, ranchers, park wardens and game rangers since the hunting ban than were ever taken by trophy hunters, with no accounting for how many were killed illegally. The Linyati River, which separates Botswana's Chobe Park and Namibia's Caprivi Strip, looks out on two different worlds. On the North, where Namibia maintains a carefully controlled hunting reserve with benefits mandated to the local population, it is green and verdant with large well-guarded wildlife populations of Elephant, Buffalo, lion and plains game. The south bank showed for many years, a blasted landscape that looked more like a WW1 battlefield as overpopulated and starving elephant populations went out of control and they dug up the trees themselves in their quest for food, staring across a river whose banks they could not navigate. Ecotourism never quite panned out for Botswana in the way it was promised. Few tourists want to journey to ecological hell. Okavango is still pretty, though. Isolated and nowhere for growing wildlife populations to go since it's in the middle of a desert being strip-mined for diamonds, and depopulated by the indigenous !Kung/San bushmen (now settled on reservations and experiencing all the joys of that experience that Native Americans have come to know so well)...
So... better go see it now.
I realize how long I've been writing, and how few people will likely read past the first few lines so I'll stop here.
Rest in peace "Cecil"... you'd probably have been dead within the year, ripped apart alive by hyenas or crippled by a rival and shot as a cattle-thief anyway. In a week where hundreds of pre-pubecsent girls were being sold into sexual slavery in North Africa, where a five-year old child was chain-sawed in half alive in front of his family by ISIS for violating Koranic Law, where Iran was given a $104 billion-dollar cheque to develop its nuclear program * by the U.S. President and where scores of elephants and rhinos were illegally slaughtered for horns and ivory by agents of China and Vietnam who operate with near-total impunity, the death of an non-endangered charismatic megafauna finally got people outraged enough to write in capital letters on their twitter postings and call for a man's death.
As for me... I would have eaten you.
As regards some feedback, I have edited this sentence from the hyperbolic phrase "buy Nuclear Arms", although given Iran's policies towards Israel and the West, continued arms trafficking by that country and continued nuclear proliferation amongst smaller nations such as Pakistan and North Korea, I feel little assurance in the nuclear deal's non-weapons provisions. I mentioned this as a global-affecting situation that has generated a fraction of the online attention given to the questionable euthanizing of an elderly animal.
---BTW, why does a nation with the fourth largest oil reserves in the world, who produces almost three times as much electricity as it's peak domestic demands, and who already exports electricity to seven neighboring nations NEED nuclear power at present?