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Why Cecil unmasks Humanity

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I was asked by a few people to provide them with the transcript of a video I did a few months ago about my reaction to the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe. Of course I will do so gladly here. Please keep this discussion going – as it is an important one, as I hope to have demonstrated in my video.

transcript, written by Reina-Marie Loader

Hello there and welcome to CHTV where we show and talk about stories that matter to us all. Today is our very first opinion piece – a segment on the channel that is meant to reflect on some of the more topical human rights and environmental issues of each month. I hope that this segment will provide you with some food for thought and inspire some reflective conversations in the comments section below this video and on our website cinemahumain.com.

Today I will be talking more about an issue that clearly meant a great deal to a lot of people. It is an issue that completely took over the social media and the Internet a few weeks ago [since the middle of 2015] – namely the hunting incident in Zimbabwe where one of the country’s most beloved lions, Cecil, was killed by the American dentist Walter Palmer. I want to talk about this issue for several reasons. Firstly, given my personal interest in conservation and the rhino-poaching crisis in Africa, several people have asked me what my view on the incident is. Secondly, the killing of Cecil represents something very complicated to me that goes beyond the mere killing of another fast declining species in Africa. To me it also involves a central dimension of our humanity, which again relates to Cinéma Humain’s core interest in creating awareness about human rights and what it means to us today.

So what actually happened to Cecil? Well, briefly, Palmer paid approximately $50,000 to hunt a lion and was assisted in this endeavour by a professional hunter and a local landowner in Zimbabwe. Cecil was baited out of the Hwange National Park and was then shot with a bow and arrow. However, this did not kill Cecil. He was only wounded. And they proceeded tracking him for an approximated 40 hours before shooting him with a rifle. At that point, they allegedly discovered that he was wearing a tracking collar and tried to remove it – which is an illegal act in itself. Cecil was wearing this collar because he was part of a research study in Oxford. If he wasn’t part of this study at the University, Cecil may well have been just another lion killed without the world knowing or caring about the legality of it all – let alone the ethicalness of sports hunting more generally. Palmer’s moral character was also brought into question when it emerged that he was previously already banned from hunting for a year because he misrepresented to the authorities the exact location where he shot and killed a black bear in the US. Social media have also shown to what extent he enjoys hunting for trophies, with kills of another lion, a leopard, a white rhino and several other species already under his belt. A photo which emerged of him with his white rhino kill, suggests that he has killed it with a bow and arrow as well – which many say is completely impossible. He also allegedly bid $45,000 to kill a very rare Californian desert bighorn sheep – which has become a highly sought after animal to trophy hunters.

As it was discovered that Cecil was illegally killed, the Internet exploded with everybody calling that all involved should be prosecuted. Conservationists, politicians, celebrities, TV hosts and your regular Joe on the street all expressed their outrage. Many comments on social media became abusive and called for harm to befall the dentist. Out of all the outrage a few articles also emerged that questioned this global indignation of an incident that occurred in a country that has more pressing human problems than the fate of a single lion – namely the abuses and crimes committed by the country’s president Robert Mugabe against his own people. It is at this point that I would like to jump in and offer a few of my own thoughts.

I completely agree with the fact that Zimbabwe is a country that has very little good going for it. The political chaos, the dictatorship, the social decline are deep wounds on our global conscience – and we are failing to address this with any effect. And that is horrible. There are massive problems where people are murdered for their political views. It is a country where people illegally flee to neighbouring countries where they know they will face violence and possible murder related to xenophobia. And still they do it. This is a situation coincidently not unlike what is happening with migrants to Europe at this very moment. There are people dying daily of hunger, illness, poverty and crime. Dreadful! Of course! All this is true. But this dimension does not make the outrage the death of Cecil ignited any less legitimate. One should always stay focused on the issue at hand and not trivialise the importance of each individual issue. Ranking problems on a scale of bigger and smaller is what is causing Zimbabwe’s problems to disappear on the global radar. Ranking suggests a form of value judgement that is equally dangerous and fails to see the complexities of the situation. All of these issues relate to people and their actions to other living things regardless of whether it involves an animal. To put it differently, one could also argue that there are much bigger problems than talking about rape – namely murder. But that doesn’t make rape any less important to discuss and try to prevent from happening. Yes, Zimbabwe is a country that has many terrible problems, but that should not and does not have any bearing on why the case of Cecil the lion is so important to discuss as well.

Now, I’ve already said earlier, his case represents something that goes beyond the ins and outs of how and where he died. It doesn’t really matter where Cecil is from. He may as well have been a lion in South Africa, Botswana or Kenya. His killing represents a sickening mental mind-set pervading Western culture and its attitudes towards Africa. Bill Maher also drew attention to this in a recent episode of his show Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO:

Maher notably pointed the following out:

‘We always talk about the sick culture of poverty. What about the sick culture of wealth?’

And that is absolutely true when thinking about the trophy hunting situation and what happened to Cecil. Trophy hunting essentially entails: killing for pleasure, which is a deeply problematic concept if you think about our human propensity to disregard the wellbeing of other living things in favour of our own wellbeing. And of course we are not talking about traditional hunting here – which is all about survival and the sustaining of additional life. The Lion King’s theme tune quite appropriately comes to mind here – the circle of life. However paradoxical it may sound, death is part of life and it should therefore sustain life. That is why a lion hunts and eats an antelope. That is why the San people, American Indians and many other cultures historically hunted – to feed their families and to stay alive. And that is also why many of us still eat meat.

Trophy hunting on the other hand represents something totally different and decidedly more sinister than most people care to admit. And we don’t want to admit it, because on the superficial side of things, it means a lot of money … for a few people, where, on the more philosophical end, it means that we have come to condone pleasure killings. And think about that for a second.

I have met many hunters over the last few years while making HORN, and I have seen this ‘pleasure’ and this ‘excitement’ that they experience – and it always left me deeply uncomfortable. Everybody who knows me, knows how much I dislike hunting as a mere sport because to me it is an illustration of how base we have become as human beings that we can regard any form of killing as a sport. What is so deeply distressing to me as someone interested in the human condition is the fact that snuffing out life (or controlling the fate of another being’s life, animal or human) has become a symbol and a validating factor of success, power and social status. Trophy hunters pay thousands to feel successful in the fact that they have the ability to dish out ridiculous amounts of money in order to control the fate of another being’s life. How is that mentality any different from a dictator seeking wealth and power over other people? Yes, from the collective socio-political perspective the latter is bigger than the former. But from the fundamentally individual human perspective, the former is no less big. The unethical mental cancer is present in both instances.

I constantly speak of human rights here at Cinéma Humain and I find it impossible to disregard our attitude towards animals within this framework as well. Let me explain why:

When we talk about the rights of people, for instance when we speak of the situation in Zimbabwe, we essentially speak up for the dignity of people – the right people have to life and a dignified existence. The fact that Western people make short visits to Africa for the pleasure of shooting animals does not represent a dignified act. If we want to have a moral voice in the world, we have to act in a way that suggests we take the rights of other living things seriously. In other words, we ourselves have to act with the dignity we recognise that all humans have.

The fact that some people have more privileges than others due to their geographical placement and access to opportunities does not give them the right to do what they want just because they can afford it and because theoretically it is ‘legal’. Palmer has often defended his action under the banner that it was a legal hunt (which it probably wasn’t in any event) but still … If legality is always the measure of right and wrong – then apartheid was okay because it was legislated into the legal system. Morally however it was completely and utterly wrong.

Additionally, many argue that trophy hunting benefits communities within poorer countries and therefore contributes to the wellbeing and dignity of people. To me this argument is an insult to those countries affected. Sports hunting is therefore yet another example of where Africa is being exploited. There is not a single indication suggesting that sports hunting is in any way beneficial to entire communities as the rich elite is fond of claiming. However, there are many instances where poor communities have been enriched by Eco tourism and educational reserves across Africa. Trophy hunting benefits already wealthy individuals, NOT struggling communities. So in fact, trophy-hunting exploits the poor for base and ethically empty fun – which directly makes it a human rights issue as well. Human rights were not devised to dish out the right of taking life, animal or not – especially within a country specifically struggling to find any form of dignity for its people. That is not a dignified action – and therefore stands in direct opposition to a dignified human existence.

Finally, one thing I should also say about the social media outrage connected to the Cecil incident is that people should not call for the death or mutilation of any one individual, which I have seen frequently in relation to outrage against Palmer. That is also undignified and just as ethically wrong and infringes on the rights of the three individuals involved in Cecil’s killing. We are far away from where it happened and we were not there. I deeply dislike the fact that many people become violent in their rhetoric instead of keeping on point and talking about the issues and their validity. This should no more be a witch-hunt than a lion-hunt. Rather keep talking about why trophy hunting is wrong and why our mentality towards it should change. Cecil’s case is one of many that shows why we should change and because he was already a ‘celebrity’ lion, he has given the issue a limelight. Maybe his senseless killing, as Dr Jane Goodall also points out, could lead to something positive in that the killing of lion as well as other endangered species, like the rhino, would be taken more seriously by everyone. Maybe people, governments, societies … humans will finally condemn trophy hunting as an unnecessary loss of beauty and life on a continent that knows ugliness and death far too well.

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Image attribution:

By Daughter#3 (Cecil) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons