Outrage, Geography, and Cecil the Lion
An American trophy hunter, a British conservation group, and a Zimbabwean lion. It might be mistaken as the opening of clever joke, but this story is anything but. In 2015, American dentist Walter Palmer paid $50,000 to travel nearly 9,000 miles to kill a lion via what is alleged to be illegal means (by baiting the lion of out of the park and shooting it on private land with no lion hunting permits). The lion turned out to be Cecil – a popular resident of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe who was tracked for 13 years by the British Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru) at Oxford University. Cecil’s death has roiled social and news media.
From NRA member and hunting activist Ted Nugent – whose conservation strategy is “kill’em and grill’em” and who says the entire story is a lie, to the animal rights group PETA’s statement that Palmer “should be hanged” for killing Cecil, there has been no shortage of hyperbole and high emotion from all directions. As an individual who has always cared about animals (even as I have eaten, worn, and otherwise benefited from them), my first response, like so many others, was one of sadness and loss. But I am also an animal geographer – a social scientist trained to study the myriad ways in which we, as humans, interact with other animal species on the planet. Animal geography starts with the fundamental idea that where something happens matters and that where can help us understand the whys and hows in hopes of making better sense of how the world is working. So what can animal geography bring to the outrage over Cecil?
A geographical perspective doesn’t remove the emotion, but it does provide a more contextual way to think about the emotions his death has triggered. Let’s begin with the majority “outraged” American perspective – as very few people besides Ted Nugent have stepped forward to defend Palmer. American individuals, in general, are generous and have a cultural love of fairness and an attraction to the underdog even as we want to be number one. Cecil fed into all these views – he was both the literal Lion King in most people’s eyes and also seen as the underdog and subject to an “unfair” death that seemed to follow no rules of fair hunting or respect for his stature. Americans also love all manner of nature shows, animal films, and zoos and we are very rarely exposed in these forms to the difficulties of living either in countries with political and economic turmoil such as Zimbabwe or learning about the difficulties of living in proximity to lions. Indeed, the focus of most of our animal media is on the separation of humans and animals and the emotional pulls on our heartstrings to love (or fear) them in all their furry, toothed, feathered, scaled glory. Finally, when was the last time the President, Congress, or any of the news media actually discussed Zimbabwe? Most Americans probably didn’t even know Zimbabwe was a country before the Cecil story broke. It becomes easier to see where the “outrage” comes from when we see that this is a situation where the cultural pull is towards Cecil the Lion King – the top underdog - in combination with a political landscape at every level that has left Zimbabwe virtually invisible to Americans.
In addition to these cultural and political contexts I would also argue that there is an economic one, and right now perhaps this is an even bigger driving force in the response to Cecil’s death than the others. Cecil’s death strikes the chord of economic inequality and injustice that Americans (and millions in the world) feel. The perception that the wealthy get to do what they want, when they want, and where they want appears to be true here. When a dentist from Minnesota has $50,000 plus to spend on killing a lion for his own pleasure, this encapsulates many people’s repulsion with the excess of wealth so few people have. That the super rich – or in his case the moderately rich – show themselves to be so narcissistic it feeds right into the idea that Cecil is the 99% and the dentist the 1%. In this way Cecil becomes representative of economic powerlessness and Palmer representative of (white) greed. This view is hard to refute given that Palmer basically plead the 5th on self-incrimination by going into hiding for a couple of weeks because he has the money to protect himself.
The British conservation group WildCru provides another geographical viewpoint. WildCru has worked over the course of its 29 years to develop scientifically sound and pragmatic solutions to the biodiversity crisis, yet there is a cloud over their organization and that cloud is British imperialism through their use of the name Cecil. Initially he was named Mangisihole because this was the location where they first captured and collared him. This local place name translates into Englishman’s watering hole. They then went on to name him Cecil because “it is a quintessentially English name,” but both of these choices – and especially Cecil – are in stark contrast to their mission of working with local peoples. From 1880-1965 the area of Zimbabwe was a British colony. It was originally “given” to one man, Cecil Rhodes, and his company by the British monarchy for their personal and corporate exploitation – which they did exceptionally well by extracting natural resources (including wildlife) and instituting a system of racial oppression. Racial oppression continued from 1965-1979 when the white minority named their declared (but unrecognized) independent country Rhodesia after Rhodes. The country was subjected to armed revolution and conflict until a peace agreement in 1980 brought full independence and a name change to Zimbabwe. That WildCru chose to name this lion after a colonially repressive white man displays a strange way of expressing their valuing of local cultures. This is not to say the work the organization does to understand lions or what life is like for those living near lions is without any merit – on the contrary they have done powerful work – but for Oxford researchers to not be aware of the symbolism of the name Cecil is very surprising and has a parallel to those arguing in the US that the confederate flag is not a symbol of racism. In fact, a statue of Cecil Rhodes was recently torn down in Cape Town, South Africa as a rejection of the colonial and racist history in that country. In addition, nowhere on WildCru’s webpages about Cecil (as of the writing of this piece) are there any photos or profiles of the local human population around Hwange park and this reinforces the separation of humans and animals and the invisibility of Zimbabwean citizens that I noted was the case in the US.
The perspective of Zimbabweans – including both humans and lions – is a final geographic pivot. Zimbabwe itself is slightly larger than Montana and Germany and has a population of around 14 million humans and about 500 – 1,680 lions (there are an estimated 30,000 lions left across the African continent). Hwange National Park where Cecil lived is the largest national park in the country and began as a game reserve in 1928 and became a national park in 1949 (both while under British rule). It became a game reserve because the wildlife had been decimated from colonial hunters under Cecil Rhodes reign. The country ranks 156 out of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index with income per person at about $1,300 annually. While there are numerous ethnic groups, the dominant religion is Christianity and the dominant occupation is agriculture. President Mugabe has been in power for the past 28 years and has implemented land reform programs that have removed farms from white landowners and displaced hundreds of thousands of people from cities leading to widespread hyperinflation, lack of jobs, and access to many basic services and supplies. That Mugabe has run his country into the ground, caused mass migration outwards of both blacks and whites, while continuing to get rich via corruption and exploitation merely echoes what the British did there for generations. When considered in this light is it really any surprise that local guides would do anything to please wealthy white westerners so they could care for their families? Or that residents surrounding the park would be resentful of the attention and money given to animals when their lives are so precarious? It is actually quite easy to see how charges that Americans are making too much fuss over one lion in comparison to the levels of human suffering in the area take hold.
So does thinking geographically change my emotional response to Cecil’s death? No, I am still saddened by the waste and his death simply adds to the emotional toll of knowing the precarious state of so many amazing species in the world. But thinking geographically does help me start to understand why there has been such a vitriolic response to his death and all the various layers that come into play. This allows me to move outside of the kill’em and grill’em or hang’em high sensationalism to consider how helping animals is helping people and vice versa in hopes that an American trophy hunter, a British conservation group, and a Zimbabwean lion can, someday, be the start of truly transformative human and animal conservation and celebration.
Julie Urbanik is the Executive Director of Coordinates Society and the author of Placing Animals. Use promo code 4S16URBANIK when you order on the Rowman & Littlefield website to save 25% on Placing Animals!