Thursday, August 6, 2015

Cecil, the Lion King

The whole world is watching... us. When they look at what is going on in America, what do they see?

Recently they have seen a nation convulsed in anguish over the death of a lion in Zimbabwe. As you know, an American dentist went to Africa and hunted down a lion named Cecil.

Nature-loving Americans, led by PETA, have called for the dentist’s head. Dedicated as it is to the ethical treatment of animals, PETA turns out not to care about the ethical treatment of human beings. But, you knew that already.

Now, a man who grew up in Zimbabwe speaks out to us from the pages of the New York Times. Goodwell Nzou is doing biochemical  research at an American university. One day he raised his eyes from his gene studies and heard America’s elites ululating over the death of a lion.

Nzou tells us how it all looks to him, a native of the nation in question:

When I turned on the news and discovered that the messages were about a lion killed by an American dentist, the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine.

My excitement was doused when I realized that the lion killer was being painted as the villain. I faced the starkest cultural contradiction I’d experienced during my five years studying in the United States.

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.

More than that, Nzou recognizes in the American reaction a form of totemism, a primitive social organization where certain animals and plants are considered to be the symbolic heads of certain social groups. If you belong to the group that has the snake as a totem, you will not be allowed to eat snake meat. But this does not mean that you cannot kill an occasional snake.

In America, of course, right-thinking people believe that they have gone beyond monotheism and have arrived at atheism. In truth, their atheism is really a disguised form of polytheism and pagan idolatry.

Nzou explains it well:

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.

“An absurdist circus” … a nice turn of phrase that explains how some of our antics look to the world beyond our shores.

Or better, Nzou continues:

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.

Kudos to the New York Times for publishing the column.


Anonymous said...

The rivalry between poachers, who kill animals for sport or profit, and game wardens, who are paid wages to protect animals against poachers even while risking their own lives, is an interesting study in human behavior and psychological inference. A monotheist should ask him or her self which behavior pattern is an expression of the love of God, the attitude and actions of the game wardens or the attitude and actions of the poachers? Which has reverence for the common creator of life and which is based on false idols including greed and efforts to feed one's transitory ego?

Anonymous said...

This is a good article regarding Cecil

KCFleming said...

The weekly Two Minute Hate is another religious ritual closely practiced by its believers.

Few of them know any of the facts you pointed out here, but facts are entirely beside the point.

They are responding on an emotional irrational level, like an adolescent or a 3 year old.

Inchoate rage directed at this object then that then that.

A world run at the whims of borderlines.

Ares Olympus said...

A strange Minnesota connection to the story, the hunter was a dentist from Minnesota, and I did some undergraduate work for another Minnesotan, an Ecologist Crag Packer who studied lion populations.

I saw articles a while ago where he was advocating fencing, apparently agreeing with Trump on how to keep dangerous predators out of your vegetable gardens. Its not a trivial issues, but clearly lions are not to be reasoned with.

I remember learning unattached male lions would try to take over a pride, and if successful, they'd kill all the young lions. So if we want to use our morality against the male's "selfish gene" or whatever. As well I remember the females did most of the hunting, while the males were only needed to protect the pride from the other males.

Anyway, I can see hunts whether legal or illegal are hard to manage. If there's money to be made for trophy hunting, its better to make legal options, but it would be nice if the opinions of the ecologists mattered in the management as much as the money.

Here's a recent article that mentions Packer.
When humans and lions clash, the king of the jungle usually loses.

"We should be very worried," said Oxford University lion researcher Hans Bauer, who is based in Ethiopia. "The numbers are clear. They are in dramatic decline."

Experts estimate there were about 75,000 African lions in 1980; now there are between 20,000 and 32,000. Last year the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed placing African lions on the threatened-but-not-endangered list. On its red list of species in trouble, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature calls the lion "vulnerable," one step away from endangered.

The number of lions in East Africa dropped 59 percent between 1993 and 2014. Lion counts in West Africa fell 66 percent in the same time period; lions there "are on the brink of extinction, they are desperately rare," said famed Duke University conservation biologist Stuart Pimm.

Only in the southern part of Africa are lions' numbers rising, slightly, because of efforts to protect them. And that's where Cecil was shot.

"The reason Cecil was becoming iconic was that it lived in a national park; It lived in protection," Pimm said. He said if hunters can lure out of the park and kill even Cecil — legendary in Zimbabwe, known for his majestic black mane — "it does not bode well" for other lions.

That's why even though hunting isn't the main cause for the lions' decline, it splits the conservation community more than any other factor, Pimm said. Some see it as a way to provide money for conservation — just as duck hunters do in the United States — while other see it as ineffectual, too costly and even unethical.

"Hunting in Africa is a complex issue," said Pimm. "Kenya does not allow hunting of any kind and Tanzania sets aside more of its land for hunting than it does for ecological parks."

A decade ago, top lion researcher Craig Packer and his team came up with a way to allow limited trophy hunting of lions and not hurt their dwindling numbers. If only certain, older, unattached lions, identifiable by nose color, were hunted in specific ways, the practice could be sustainable. His team even published a guide on telling the age of a lion by nose color to help trophy hunters go after lions in a sustainable way.

"It led to me being kicked out of Tanzania," said Packer, on phone from a game preserve in South Africa. "In Africa it's a business. It's very cynical and very corrupt."

Other scientists say his vocal anti-hunting advocacy got him in trouble.