Wednesday 20 November 2019

The law of the jungle

When Minneapolis dentist Walter Palmer went big-game hunting in ­Zimbabwe, he didn't expect to return home to threats of being tracked down and killed like stalked game. But that was before he lured and callously killed Cecil the Lion.

Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Protesters call attention to the alleged poaching of Cecil the lion, in the parking lot of Dr. Walter Palmer's River Bluff Dental Clinic on July 29, 2015 in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Cecil the lion

Joe O'Shea

If US dentist Walter Palmer ever stopped to wonder how it feels to be hunted, he must have a pretty good idea now. The wealthy big-game hunter from the heartland of America has gone from comfortable obscurity to worldwide infamy, thanks to Cecil the Lion and the power of social media.

What might, up until recently, have been just an "And Finally..." story for the mainstream media has blown up into a globally discussed and debated issue. On Twitter alone, the hashtag #CecilTheLion appeared over 670,000 times in the 24 hours after the story first broke.

A series of tweets from comedian and animal lover Ricky Gervais were retweeted tens of thousands of times. Gervais also tweeted a very graphic picture of a Spanish bullfighter being gored through the mouth and jaw, with the caption: "This f**kwit finally got the point".

Gervais has previous commented on this issue, in April he tweeted a picture of Rebecca Francis, who hosts an American TV programme called Eye of the Hunter, lying next to a dead giraffe. Francis immediately received a large number of death threats.

On mainstream media, US late-night chat-show host Jimmy Kimmel actually had to fight back tears on live TV while describing the death of Cecil.

During an emotional monologue, he urged viewers to contribute to a wildlife charity, saying: "If you want to make this into a positive, make a donation and support them. At the very least, maybe we can show the world that not all Americans are like this jack-hole here."

In the febrile world of social media, threats of violence against the hunter, his family, the staff at his dental practice (just outside Minneapolis) and pretty much anybody connected to him or big-game hunting in general, flew thick and fast.

Walter Palmer, who paid $50,000 (€45,000) to kill a lion in Zimbabwe, has closed his dental practice and gone into hiding. The Facebook page, Twitter and website for his River Bluff dental practice were all taken down after being swarmed with death threats and insults. Phone-calls made to his practice just before it closed saw staff being threatened with fire-bombing and worse.

Scores of protesters turned up at his practice and recreated a hunt using stuffed animals and water pistols. They then started a vigil outside the office's front door, with flowers, stuffed animals and candles to honour the memory of Cecil.

The facts of the case appear to have been established. Walter Palmer, a long-time big-game hunter who has travelled all over the world for "trophies", went to Zimbabwe early in July to hunt lions. He was taken by a local company which specialises in "safari hunting" (think regular safari trip except with guns and crossbows instead of cameras) to the edge of a national park where he killed a male African lion.

The Zimbabwean authorities have now arrested several people connected with the hunt, on charges that it was not properly licensed and Cecil - who was well known to wildlife researchers and visitors to the national park - was "lured" out of the safety of the protected area with bait and then shot with a high-powered crossbow and wounded by Palmer before being found several hours later and finished off. The lion was skinned and the head removed so that Palmer could bring his "trophy" back to the US to be stuffed and displayed.

Palmer, who faced charges in the US several years ago for illegally hunting a black bear, has since apologised, both in a letter to his patients and in a statement to media, saying: "I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favourite, was collared and part of a study, until the end of the hunt.

"I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion," he added.

The storm around the killing of Cecil has highlighted the huge business that is big-game hunting with clients, mostly wealthy Americans, paying large amounts of money to hunt in Africa and elsewhere.

Safari hunters can pay up to $100,000 to "take" big game in many African countries. An estimated 600-800 lions alone are killed every year. There are now just 30,000 lions in the wild in Africa, down from around 100,000 in 2000. Not all of this is due to hunting, most populations have seen their wild habitats disappear.

It is cheaper to practice what is known as "canned hunting", where lions and other animals are bred purely to be hunted on fenced-off estates, the equivalent of going fishing on a trout-farm, with guaranteed kills. There are an estimated 150 "farms" offering canned hunting in southern Africa.

Wildlife organisations such as the Born Free Foundation have campaigned for the US and the EU to ban the importation of "trophies", saying if hunters cannot bring home souvenirs of their trip, they might not be so enthusiastic about paying huge amounts of money to kill big game.

Born Free's Dominic Dyer has pointed out that while the Cecil story has shocked the world, "it highlights a bigger problem in Africa".

"The number of lions are dropping rapidly due to activities like trophy hunting. I hope it is a wake-up call for action and Cecil hasn't died in vein".

The wildlife activist says the sport tends to attract a certain type of customer.

"It is often wealthy people from North America and Asia wanting to do it to flaunt their wealth and power, by having a lion's head on their wall or a polar bear rug.

"Some people are not ashamed even when they have been vilified on social media.

"In North America there are even TV channels and shops on it."

In Africa, the Cecil story has raised issues around colonialism and memories of the time when Great White Hunters would slaughter their way across the plains and mountains of the continent.

The British royal family - who still hunt on their estates in the UK, often taking up to hundreds of birds - were part of the colonial elite which enthusiastically blasted its way across Africa, India and other far-flung playing fields of the empire.

On social media, an old photo of Prince Philip and the queen, standing over a tiger just shot in India, has been in wide circulation since the "murder" of Cecil.

The worldwide outcry about the death of one lion could focus long-term attention on the practice of pay-for-prey big game hunting (assuming it's not just a typical 48-hour Twitter Outrage Fest and the mob moves on).

For African countries like Zimbabwe, the future would appear to be in conserving wildlife and making sure it's there for the tourists who only want to shoot them with expensive cameras.

"Statistics show that more money is received from wildlife tours than from hunting," says Dominic Dyer of the Born Free Foundation.

"And the money from hunting often doesn't filter down and remains with corrupt government officials in Africa or goes back to hunting companies and not to conservation.

"Cecil would have lived for at least 13 years so over time would have generated huge revenue.

"For example an elephant could generate £1m (€1.4m) from tourism in its lifetime."

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