A Wildlife Researcher Yogi’s Take on Cecil the Lion.
The story of Cecil the Lion and the Minnesota dentist trophy hunter could have been just like any other social media sensations to me. It would be something I would click on briefly when scanning Facebook and then respond, “Okay, interesting, but I bet it is more complicated than it is stated in this article.”
As a former dental patient of Walter Palmer and wildlife management researcher in southern Africa and now a Kundalini yoga teacher, I found myself sitting enmeshed within this story with a unique and complex perspective.
Reading the large amounts of online coverage, I got fed up seeing many smart people get wrapped up in emotion by oversimplified social media posts.
But it was the lack of compassion for humans and animals alike that made me write this list.
Three tips to well-intentioned readers of social media about wildlife in southern Africa:
1) If it seems too simple, it probably is.
I conducted natural resources management research in multiple countries in southern Africa for much of the late 1990s. A key lesson from my experience in Botswana and Zimbabwe? Animal-human conflict is real. All is not how it seems in the media.
I have been privileged to experience a slice of life with people in small rural and poor communities on the outskirts of national parks in southern Africa. I learned through these experiences that it is crucial to provide clear incentives to people to conserve.
Arguments like, “Those animals are so beautiful and have brains and family units like humans” are not likely to be embraced when an elephant has just destroyed your small plot of crops intended to feed your family for the coming months, or just trampled a small child to death in the middle of the village (like would happen at least annually in many of these communities).
I was never presented with any reason to doubt any citizen’s commitment to protect the animals within the nearby protected areas. However, the realities just outside the park boundaries beg the question: What incentive do these people have to not just kill the animals that can destroy major parts of their lives in only a few moments?
A key incentive for rural citizens to not kill problem animals was that fee payments from wildlife tourism filtered back to their communities. Many photo tourists would come through and leave some revenue through permit and craft purchases, but would also leave trash, use up limited water resources and degrade the land with considerable four-wheel-drive traffic in the protected areas and nearby. These photo tourists would stay at lodges that employed some local people (who were privileged enough to get training to get hired) and in some cases would funnel revenue back to the rural communities as well.
There were a few hunters from abroad who would pay top dollar each year to come hunt specific species in defined areas some distance away from protected areas under very specific rules. These few hunts had negligible impact on population numbers, given that the animals hunted were largely overpopulated in the area at that time.
These hunting expeditions had a considerable positive economic impact on the nearby communities. The hunts would bring significant revenue in fees and permits that would surpass that of crowds of photo tourists, with less overall environmental degradation. The meat of the animals killed by the hunters would also go back to the communities and provide needed protein, particularly for the local children.
In interviews with leaders in a number of these communities in northern Botswana, I heard they valued both photo and hunting tourists, but the hunting tourists provided the important and significant revenue that benefited their communities the most with the least negative impacts.
This story is my experience in southern Africa. Not a simple story to tell and nearly impossible to encapsulate in a Facebook newsfeed graphic.
2) While we may not like the idea of a few people trophy hunting, hunting revenues by a few are crucial to subsidizing a broad range of conservation activities
Much of the coverage of Cecil the Lion depicted lions as the stereotypical charismatic megafauna, or as animals with widespread appeal whose pictures help animal welfare groups do fundraising.
Wildlife in Africa are often described only in terms of their value as creatures to be watched on television, but not in realistic relation to the diversity of the lands and people throughout our world’s second largest continent. Nor did the coverage take into account the realities of living next to these animals, rather than only discussing them from the privilege of thousands of miles away from their rangeland.
The person who killed Cecil the Lion used to be my dentist when I lived near Minneapolis about 15 years ago. He and his staff at River Bluff Dental provided me quality treatment and I recall talking to him briefly about his past travel in Botswana and Zimbabwe on hunting safaris. I was impressed, at the time, that he had some knowledge of the local communities near where he conducted his hunts. But I had no further knowledge of his hunting and had few interactions with him.
I absolutely do not condone what he did. I see it as a crucial responsibility of the hunter to ensure beyond a doubt the legality of his actions. He clearly did not do this, and it is deplorable he is trying to deflect all responsibility to his guides.
However, just because of this terrible case, I do not think it is justified to completely condemn all legal trophy hunting that provides critical revenue in support of a wide range of conservation efforts in many countries in southern Africa, especially those noted above.
According to the director of its Kingupira Research Centre, Tanzania has 15 photo-safari areas, which have been lauded as a non-consumptive alternative to traditional hunting tourism. Unfortunately, only 4 of the 15 photo-safari areas are financially viable. The remaining 11 are subsidized by hunter-generated funds. So without the financial resources provided by hunters, there would be very little infrastructure for wildlife management. Though this study was conducted a considerable distance away from Zimbabwe, it underlies the important role of hunter generated funds to the overall conservation of wildlife, especially close to protected areas.
To be clear, though, this hunt was not a legal one, and it is the legal ones that are crucial to conservation. Without a doubt, the U.S. government should investigate and pursue prosecution of Palmer for his actions in this hunt. It is so unfortunate that the few Walter Palmers in the world make a bad name for all the ethical hunters that exist.
3) Compassion for animals must be synonymous with compassion for people. One cannot be realized without the other.
Regardless of all my personal connections to this story, I read this story most of all from my perspective as a Kundalini yoga teacher who is seeking to share peace with the world. One of the teachings that came to me most as I read about this case was the sutra (or saying): “Understand through compassion or you will misunderstand the times.”
Throughout social media, I have seen many express concern about the rights of this and all lions and just how special this particular lion was. I can understand their frustration with the troubling actions of this hunter. But many of these postings went too far. They vilified this person and said that he deserved to die, and other threatening statements.
If you no longer want to go to Palmer’s dental practice, absolutely justified. I do not want to either. If you want his actions to be further investigated by federal authorities and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, also justified. But saying he should be executed? That goes too far.
In the discussion of Cecil the Lion, the more complicated issues of poverty and natural resources management in this region were largely forgotten. While we should not forget the value of these animals, we must not forget the human lives that matter in the communities near these wildlife areas.
There have been coverage of what an ego Palmer must have to hunt in this way. I agree. He could be well served in examining the deeper issues of insecurity and self-loathing he may be facing within himself that caused him to act in the deplorable way he did. As a Kundalini yoga teacher, I certainly have some meditative techniques I would recommend he explore.
But I am concerned about the extent of anger and vitriol spewed toward this person and how it simply continues and intensifies the negative energy started by this barbaric act. Those who have expressed hateful and violent statements toward this hunter, I have some meditative practices I would love to share with them as well.
We live in an increasingly stressful, fast paced and information filled world. If we cannot have some level of compassion for all living beings, our world is only going to get more violent and unbearable.
Dublin, Holly and H. Jachmann. 1992. “The Impact of the Ivory Ban on Illegal Hunting of Elephants in Six Range States in Africa.” Gland: WWF.
Ellis, Stephen. 1994. “Of Elephants and Men: Politics and Nature Conservation in Southern Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies.” 20(1): 53-69.
Metcalfe, Simon. 1994. “The Zimbabwe Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE).” In Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community Based Conservation. Ed. David Western and R. Michael Wright, 161-192. Washington DC: Island Press.
Author: Haridev Kaur
Editor: Emily Bartran