Every movement has its flashpoint: that one case out of all the hundreds or thousands you’ve heard or read that grabs you by the throat and casts a practice that was previously disturbing into the realm of intolerable.
The baiting, luring, killing and beheading of Cecil, the renowned 13-year-old lion, for a Minnesota dentist’s trophy has proven to be one such flashpoint. Maybe you already knew there were Americans shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to kill animals that are going extinct so that they can mount their heads on walls to assert their superiority. But it didn’t hit you viscerally until you saw photos of the majestic creature juxtaposed against the hideous details of his death.
Cecil, who had been monitored since 2008 by Oxford University researchers through its Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, was lured with food out of a protected national park in Zimbabwe and shot first with a bow and arrow, then a rifle. The hunters then cut his head off and took it, leaving his body to rot. Walter Palmer, the aforementioned dentist, had reportedly paid nearly $50,000 for the thrill.
A local hunter and professional guide, who said he helped Palmer lure the lion out to where hunting wasn’t prohibited, said the dentist saw the lion’s collar only after killing it, and realizing his offense, hid it in a tree.
Palmer has closed his practice and gone into hiding, saying there were threats against him. He has claimed he broke no laws and had the proper permits. But Zimbabwean authorities are filing charges against him and want him extradited. The two men he hired, including the park owner, are charged with breaching hunting quotas.
Now there are concerns that because Cecil was the leader and protector of his pride, the pride’s cubs and lionesses will be vulnerable to attack by other lions. But the researchers hope Cecil’s brother moves in to take his place. In the last 30 years, 60 percent of lions in the wild have disappeared.
The International Federation of Animal Welfare blames it partly on trophy hunting, noting the same is happening to rhinoceroses, leopards, elephants and polar bears.
“And what is most disconcerting is that the rarer they become, the more people will pay to kill them for sport,” the federation said.
Between 1999 and 2008, U.S. trophy hunters were responsible for 64 percent of the African lions killed for sport. U.S Fish and Wildlife Service conservationists say at this rate, African lions will be extinct by 2050.
Palmer must have no shame. After Cecil was dead and his collar had been hidden, Palmer’s hired assistant said the dentist asked if they could hunt for elephant, another endangered species. But we can’t hold Palmer responsible for what has long been happening, often legally. A Dallas safari club member recently paid $350,000 for the right to kill a critically endangered black rhino in Namibia, perfectly legally.
Such trophy hunters and governments claim they help support local conservation efforts, though the IFAW says only 3 percent to 5 percent of the money stays local. Kenya has banned trophy hunting and is making far more money from ecotourism.
Maybe you can’t even make logical sense of why this incident haunts you, because in our collective push to conquer new frontiers, we are not expected to be so emotional about nature. But seeing TV host Jimmy Kimmel moved to tears by it probably helped validate the feelings of many.
It’s one thing to kill animals for food when their populations are plentiful. Or at least that’s how some of us rationalize eating meat. But to kill for sport or bragging rights when a species is approaching extinction is a new form of colonialism — over the Earth. The World Wildlife Federation says species are going extinct 100 to 1,000 times faster than nature intended, and that because of human actions, wild species of vertebrates have fallen by more than half in 40 years.
Conservation groups have lobbied the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to add the African lion to the Endangered Species Act, which would have prevented Palmer from importing Cecil’s head. Maybe that effort will gain traction now. By late last week, more than 145,000 people had signed a petition to extradite Palmer to Zimbabwe, and donations to Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit were pouring in.
With these kinds of responses, Americans, who are increasingly becoming vegetarian, are calling for a different kind of relationship to the Earth and its creatures: one not based on domination and conquest, but on harmony.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.