The killer of Cecil has been revealed as Walter Palmer, a dentist and father of two from Minnesota. Palmer has since apologised for shooting Cecil, saying he didn't realise that the lion had a name or that he was breaking the law by killing an animal that had been coaxed away from the game reserve it lived on.
To which one is tempted to respond, well, maybe you should have known.
Like Vincent Van Gogh, Cecil the Lion has enjoyed a fame in death that surpasses anything he experienced in life. He became a hashtag and trended on Twitter. Continuing the social media theme, many of those outraged by Palmer have taken aim at his dental practice, flaming it with bad reviews on Yelp.
If nothing else, Palmer has finally learned what it means to be the prey of an incomprehensible force much larger and more powerful than himself.
What struck me reading the coverage was how similar he was in certain respects to many of the Americans I met in South Africa. They too were bowhunters from the mid-West, a place where there is a robust hunting culture, directly mainly at the large populations of deer. And like Palmer, some were involved in a years-long effort to bag as many big-ticket trophies as possible, a bit like trainspotters ticking locomotives off a list, only with more death.
However, unlike Palmer, my hunters had taken the lower-budget option of hunting animals on game farms - creatures that are privately owned and that have been raised from birth for the purpose of being stalked and killed. This has the advantage (to the hunter, though not to the animal) of being both more affordable (in 2007 it was $250 for a porcupine; $14,000 for a buffalo; and so on, through a menu of semi-wild creatures) and also a fair bit easier: you won’t have to track your quarry for days because, basically, they’re fenced in.
The fact that Palmer shot Cecil with a crossbow is worth noting. In some hunting circles, bow-hunting is viewed as superior to hunting with guns. It requires more skill. I also heard it said that animals on game farms where hunting with guns is prohibited are much less stressed because they never have to hear the ear-splitting reports of firearms. However, this hardly applies to Cecil since he lived in Hwange National Park.
The other salient fact about bowhunting is that, because it’s harder, it is arguably more likely to lead to an injured animal and a protracted death – which helps to explain the fact that Cecil, having been dinged with the crossbow, was tracked for 40 hours before being dispatched with a firearm.
While you might be able to make a case for bow-hunting deer – to do with local traditions, hunting for food, and so on – really, there is no reason to bow-hunt a lion other than showing off.
I think the idea is that you are pitting yourself against a fearsome creature, armed only with a hand-powered and relatively primitive weapon. But this is pretty bogus, since the only bow-hunter who faces a lion is going to have men with guns, loaded and cocked, standing either side of him in case something goes wrong.
Though I am a non-hunter, I try not to be censorious about hunting. As a meat-eater and a participant in a food supply chain that involves practises that are too hideous to bear thinking about (eg. the mass grinding up of baby chicks - you can watch it on YouTube if you're in the mood) I'm aware that any criticism I might make of hunting runs the risk of being massively hypocritical.
I'm also aware that many hunters are heavily involved in conservation and that in general you can't subtract death from existence, unless you become a Jain with a special strainer to save the insects that drop into your soup.
However, there are just so many details here that rub me the wrong way: the laundry list of animals on Palmer's kill list; how, in one of his photos, he's standing with his shirt off, the sun glinting off his biceps, holding a dead leopard; the fact that Cecil the lion was wearing a GPS tag when he was killed.
It’s an uncomfortable possibility that there may be as many nincompoops among the forces arrayed against hunting as there are in the okay-with-hunting camp. And even among the anti-hunters there is a recognition of the inconsistency of kicking up a fuss over this or that named specimen of big game while less photogenic creatures go to their extinction unmourned.
But, whether or not it’s inconsistent, animals like Cecil – termed “charismatic megafauna” by some conservationists – are a convenient rallying place for those of us who think we owe animals more consideration.
And so while a little part of me feels for Walter Palmer, as he’s tracked and pursued through his own 40 hours of hell, the greater part of me mourns Cecil.
Author's photo credit: Caroline Irby
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