In December of 2014, a lion was loose in Kentucky. This was the first wild mountain lion found in Kentucky in well over 150 years and in short order it was shot dead by Kentucky fish and game officers who smiled and posed next to it in their starched uniforms.
Lions are shot fairly routinely in the United States, and so too are black bears, wolves, alligators, bobcat, wolves, and the occasional grizzly,
Despite the novelty of a lion being in Kentucky, rather than South Dakota or Colorado, the Kentucky Lion story did not make a ripple in the national press.
A lion shot in Zimbabwe received a very different media response, however, in large part because of the irrelevant fact that it was shot by a rich privileged dentist and in part because some tourist bus operator had given the reliable old lion a name. Am I the only person who noticed the lion was named after Cecil Rhodes?!
In an earlier post I noted that Africa has not wiped out all of its top end predators as so many U.S. States have:
Africa has not gone the way of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, which decided to kill off all of their wolves and lions. Instead, is is managing them within a massive park system. Is this park system perfectly managed? No, but it is generally improving with better electronic communication equipment, improved ground transportation, better salaries, better training, and more cross-border cooperation.
In a New York Times op-ed Zimbabwean Goodwell Nzou expands on this general idea, noting that where you stand on lions may depend on where you actually sit:
Did all those Americans signing petitions understand that lions actually kill people? That all the talk about Cecil being “beloved” or a “local favorite” was media hype? Did Jimmy Kimmel choke up because Cecil was murdered or because he confused him with Simba from “The Lion King”?
In my village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname. They are objects of terror.
When I was 9 years old, a solitary lion prowled villages near my home. After it killed a few chickens, some goats and finally a cow, we were warned to walk to school in groups and stop playing outside. My sisters no longer went alone to the river to collect water or wash dishes; my mother waited for my father and older brothers, armed with machetes, axes and spears, to escort her into the bush to collect firewood.
A week later, my mother gathered me with nine of my siblings to explain that her uncle had been attacked but escaped with nothing more than an injured leg. The lion sucked the life out of the village: No one socialized by fires at night; no one dared stroll over to a neighbor’s homestead.
When the lion was finally killed, no one cared whether its murderer was a local person or a white trophy hunter, whether it was poached or killed legally. We danced and sang about the vanquishing of the fearsome beast and our escape from serious harm.
Recently, a 14-year-old boy in a village not far from mine wasn’t so lucky. Sleeping in his family’s fields, as villagers do to protect crops from the hippos, buffalo and elephants that trample them, he was mauled by a lion and died.
The killing of Cecil hasn’t garnered much more sympathy from urban Zimbabweans, although they live with no such danger. Few have ever seen a lion, since game drives are a luxury residents of a country with an average monthly income below $150 cannot afford.
Don’t misunderstand me: For Zimbabweans, wild animals have near-mystical significance. We belong to clans, and each clan claims an animal totem as its mythological ancestor. Mine is Nzou, elephant, and by tradition, I can’t eat elephant meat; it would be akin to eating a relative’s flesh. But our respect for these animals has never kept us from hunting them or allowing them to be hunted. (I’m familiar with dangerous animals; I lost my right leg to a snakebite when I was 11.)
The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation — there were 800 lions legally killed over a decade by well-heeled foreigners who shelled out serious money to prove their prowess — into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.
PETA is calling for the hunter to be hanged. Zimbabwean politicians are accusing the United States of staging Cecil’s killing as a “ploy” to make our country look bad. And Americans who can’t find Zimbabwe on a map are applauding the nation’s demand for the extradition of the dentist, unaware that a baby elephant was reportedly slaughtered for our president’s most recent birthday banquet.
We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.
Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.
And please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.
So who decides? Is it the ignorant hillbilly in Arizona, or the welfare rancher running sheep on national forest land? Is it state fish and game officers, or politicians in Washington, D.C., or Sierra Club members in New York City, or hyper-ventilating housewives, or a rich dentist in Kalamazoo?
And, or course, the very same type of questions are equally relevant in Zimbabwe.
Top end predators will always have occasional conflicts with humans. This is something we need to accept without over-reacting.
It's important to remember that big fierce animals are always rare; this is a biological imperative. In fact, it is because big fierce animals are rare that protecting them is important. The protection of a population of top end predators results in the protection of thousands of other species down the chain of life. You need a lot of wild to support a breeding population of lions, wolves, black bears, or grizzlies.
The good news is we no longer live in the age of ignorance. We know that we can cut down all the forest, plow up all of the prairies, net out all the fish, and shoot out all the game.
This truth was self-evident in Africa as early as 1934. In an interview with Ernest Hemingway the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that:
The Wall Street depression has been great for the Lions of Tanganyika, and that is part of the news from the hunting ground.
A lion hunt was beginning to rate higher in financial circles and a daughter with the title it was almost as numerous. The lions were being run ragged, up to the end of 1929.
Now the millionaire crop is being plowed under every year. And out in East Africa men joke about having to give the dark continent back to the Lions unless prosperity returns.
Rare now are they who can blow themselves to a hunt in which a 70£ license fee is only the beginning of the cost. That license gives the hunter the right to kill five Lions – – only two of them in the Serengeti Plain where the best are found.....
"What about this $375 license?" I asked [Hemingway] "how many animals can you shoot with that?"
"You can shoot five Lions, two Rhinos, six Buffaloes, and four Elands."
Those days are long gone, of course, and it's not hard to understand why.
The population of the world was just 2 billion in 1930, and it is over 7 billion today.
Africa, which had a total population of under 175 million in 1930, has over a billion people today.
Meanwhile, the rich from all over the world can fly to Africa in less than a day, and if they want to hunt it has never been easier. Guns, communication, transportation, and camping equipment are better now than they have ever been. If, five minutes after shooting an elephant, you must talk to your stock broker in New York while watching television and having an espresso, that wish can be accommodated.
And so, as the world is new, so must we think anew.
Old ethos cannot survive the current press of people, technology and consumption, and that is true at both ends of the stick.
Between "shoot them all out" and "never kill a one" is the space where we must all find room to live, predator and people alike. It will never be an easy fit.