14 Aug Perfect storm behind #CecilTheLion’s story
Why has Cecil’s shooting become such a big issue? What we are witnessing, writes Gareth Patterson, is one of the largest demonstrations of the power of civil society – driven by public outrage and the Internet
The news about the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe unleashed an unprecedented global storm of public outpouring of emotions. Overnight Cecil became the most famous lion in the world, and his killer, US dentist Walter Palmer, became the world’s most hated man.
For more than two weeks I have been investigating what sparked and drove the avalanche of public emotion.
It has become clear that the platform for the launching of the public outrage was created on the March 15 2014 with The Global March for Lions, an astonishing worldwide event against lion trophy hunting. Thousands of people of all ages and nationalities gathered in more than 60 cities, from London to Cape Town to Hong Kong and New York, to express their support and concern for lions. The global event created, up until the death of Cecil, unprecedented public awareness about the plight of the big cats.
It was not a large international animal welfare organisation that came up with the idea for The Global March for Lions. The initiative was the inspiration of a young woman living in Durban, Christine Jordaan.
She explained how the march came into being:
“In September 2013 I happened upon an article by the Campaign Against Canned Hunting (CACH) and started reading up on canned lion hunting. The horrific reality was almost too much to take in.
“I thought a worldwide march would be a brilliant way to raise awareness in the general public, and to show governments that there are a huge number of people across the world who will no longer be silent regarding trophy hunting and the cruelty involved.
“Quite simply, we want trophy and canned hunting banned. I believe we have no right whatsoever to decide when an animal should die. They are not here for us to use, to sell their lives. It would be sheer arrogance to believe otherwise.
“Our goals are to have lion trophy hunting and canned hunting banned; to stop the export of lion bones to the East, and to stop the import of lion trophies into the United States and the European Union.”
In all the participating cities worldwide, The Global March for Lions was a resounding success. Media coverage was substantial and many celebrities, including Ricky Gervais, Tippi Hedren, Lennox Lewis, Jerome Flynn and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spoke out for the lions’ cause. Never before had there been such a huge global protest for an animal species.
The building blocks of public awareness of the true plight of the lion had been created. Previously, in terms of its endangered status, the lion had somehow been cast into the shadows during conservation agencies’ fund raising for iconic species such as the elephant and rhino. Both these species urgently need greater protection, but so too do a myriad of other species, including the lion.
African elephant and rhino populations are under considerable threat. At the time of The Global March for Lions, only about 500,000 elephants existed in Africa (an astonishing 62% drop in numbers over the past decade) and some 25,000 rhinos were left on the continent (at the turn of the last century it is thought some 400,000 rhinos existed in Africa).
What was not widely known by the global public – and up until very recent years, little prominence has been put upon this by the conservation agencies, organisations and authorities – is that probably no more than 15,000 to 20,000 lions exist in Africa. Fifty years previously, it was estimated that the continental lion population was in excess of some 400,000. And there has been an estimated 50% drop in numbers in the past two decades.
Despite this, the African lion is only classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, instead of Endangered, and they are freely trophy hunted. Each year foreign lion trophy hunters (approximately 60% of the trophy hunters are from the US, and approximately 40% are from Europe) kill some 500 lions in the African wilds. This does not include the hundreds of captive-raised canned lions killed by trophy hunters every year on South Africa’s lion farms.
The overwhelming majority of lions killed each year by trophy hunters are males, full-grown males in their prime. Killing pride males creates an unnatural imbalance within lion society, and results online casino in further lion deaths, and social chaos. When pride males are killed, other males move in to take over, and inflict infanticide on the previous male’s cubs. So with pride males being killed, 14 or more other lions die. In turn, the new males might be shot by trophy hunters, and so the social chaos spirals.
This brings me back to my investigation into the massive global public and media outpouring with the death of Cecil.
The Global March for Lions created the platform for public awareness about the plight of the lion as a species, then 16 months later, with the killing of Cecil, social media brought millions of people face to face with the chilling reality of lion trophy hunting. The public was horrified and outraged – and they reacted with a firestorm of protest. The Internet has become the biggest threat to the hunting fraternity.
What we are witnessing, and are a part of, with the whole Cecil saga, is one of the largest demonstrations of the power of civil society – driven by the Internet. It has been staggering. Cecil became the number one trending topic on Twitter and Google, and his image was projected on to the Empire State Building.
Amid the furore, dentist Walter Palmer went into hiding, his business closed down, and the Zimbabwean government began seeking his extradition from the US to face charges. In Zimbabwe, charges were laid against the two other alleged culprits in Cecil’s killing, professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst, and the owner of the land where Cecil was lured onto, Honest Ndlovu.
We live in a strange age of adorning celebrities as if they are demi-gods, and as I monitored the media, I saw that celebrities and personalities were quick to add their voices to the global protest, which in turn spread like a wildfire on the social networks.
Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote on Instagram:
“Stop killing big cats. Killing a lion isn’t ballsy. Joining the military – that’s ballsy. Protecting big cats equals ballsy.”
US talk-show host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel broke down when speaking about Cecil during one of his shows. A clip from the show went viral on YouTube. Kimmel, directing his comments at Walter Palmer, says on the clip:
“The big question is, why are you shooting a lion in the first place? I am honestly curious to know why a human being would be compelled to do that. How fun is that? Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things?”
As Palmer cowered in hiding, British actor Sir Roger Moore spoke out strongly against him, and trophy hunting is general:
“Hunting is a coward’s pastime and no-one has demonstrated this more clearly than Walter Palmer. Clearly he (Palmer) is gunning his way through the animal kingdom and who among us feels that we live in a civilized society while he is on the loose. He must be stopped and brought to justice.”
Perfect media story
To obtain first-hand opinion on the US public response to the killing of Cecil, I contacted well-known US radio personality Norman Batley (aka Norman B), host of Life Elsewhere on Radio WMNF. I asked him what was his reaction to the explosive outpouring in the US, and what he attributed this outpouring to. He told me:
“I was not surprised about the outpouring. It was/is a perfect media story. It had everything to evoke public outcry: a lovable king of the jungle… slain for a trophy. A wicked, rich villain. A far-off exotic land. Heart-wrenching footage of stately lions in the savanna. And, total confused previous misinformation as to the true state of big game hunting.
“I would also offer, cynically, that the story came at a time when relief was needed from the never-ending tragedies of gun violence in the USA, amongst other constant gruesome news. The killing of a majestic lion was an emotive distraction.
“Personally, I think the killing of any animal for sport is sad. Sad as in why would anyone feel the need to do that? Then again, I’m not partial to zoos or circuses. Studying and learning from our animal friends is what I would hope we could do respectfully.”
I wanted to know first-hand the response to Cecil’s killing in Britain, and also within Africa’s tourism industry.
I contacted Julie Hyde Mew, a TV news producer with Sky World News in London, to ask her for her thoughts as a media person of long standing on the Cecil tragedy and the public response. This was her reply:
“I was astounded at the response to the story about the killing of Cecil. As a lover of animals, I follow many wildlife and conservation links on the Internet – and I shared the story about Cecil on Facebook. Two days later, it had gone viral, and then the media picked up on the story.
“My news feed on Facebook was wall-to-wall with the story about Cecil. It pushed out practically every other story of the day, the week, the month! It was quite phenomenal. I have never seen any similar story take off so quickly, and dominate the Internet and the media for so long.
“I think people latched onto his story because it epitomised everything that’s wrong with our world today. We are surrounded by so much death, destruction, greed, poverty, suffering – many feel overwhelmed by forces which they can do nothing about.
“I think Cecil became an overnight ‘cause célèbre’ because the story was not just about Cecil, and it was not just about lions. Rather, he became a symbol for everything that makes us angry and makes us weep. Sharing his story on the Internet, and calling for the hunters to face justice, gave people a chance to express their anger and their sadness, and also gave them back some of the power many feel they’ve lost.”
I also spoke to Paul Tully, safari manager of Captured in Africa, a conservation-based photographic safari company. From Britain, Paul said:
“The British public outpouring following the death of Cecil has been phenomenal and refreshing. We’ve had the odd closed-minded approach to Cecil’s death from those who view it as ‘just a lion’, but in general the public’s opinion has been right on the money.
“It was always far more than ‘just a lion’ – it was about everything that encompasses current African wildlife issues, such as trophy hunting, canned hunting, illicit wildlife trade in rhino horn, elephant ivory and the lion bone trade.
“In Britain we are seeing #CeciltheLion trending on social media, and images and videos of Cecil across news channels and radio – not just every day, but every five minutes. The lion species in general has been highlighted in such an explosive manner that the lesser-known industry of canned hunting has also been brought to the surface.
“A worrying sign, however, is in the UK we’ve had all this outpouring of outrage, the people are speaking, yet we have an environment minister apparently happy to continue allowing the importation of lion and big cat trophies into the UK.”
Of the response to Cecil’s killing within Africa’s tourism industry, Tully said:
“Throughout the tourism industry, we’ve seen great debate and comment from everyone. Even professionals who maybe voiced their concerns less than others on such matters in the past have spoken up, shared the Cecil story and seemingly connected with it … and in doing so, it seems many are now realising that they can actually do some good – you don’t need to be a conservationist to help conserve a species.”
The grim reality of trophy hunting has been thrust into the international arena by the killing of Cecil, and I sense much will play out in this saga in the months ahead.
Firstly, there is the trial of Bronkhorst and Ndlovu. Will Walter Palmer be extradited from the US to Zimbabwe to face charges of illegal hunting? Could Palmer even face charges of contravening wildlife laws, as some legal experts have suggested, in his own country?
And then there is the question regarding Cecil and lion trophy hunting. Will Cecil’s death have been in vain, with lion trophy hunting continuing in Africa, or will his death mark the beginning of the end of lion trophy hunting?
Well known for his work on the African lion, Gareth Patterson is an environmentalist, independent wildlife researcher, public speaker and author who has worked tirelessly for more than 25 years for the greater protection of African wildlife. See www.garethpatterson.com. His latest book is his autobiography, titled My Lion”s Heart