What really killed Cecil the Lion

If a citizen of Zimbabwe traversed the frontier and shot a bald eagle for sport, every self-described American patriot would absolutely be up in arms. After all, the bald eagle remains a historic symbol of American strength and liberty. It appears all over U.S. currency, including on the Great Seal, as a symbol of national pride.

Having only been taken off the endangered species list roughly eight years ago, the bald eagle was saved thanks to federal laws and resources devoted to repopulation. Killing one is patently un-American, even criminal. Just last year, two teenagers in Iowa faced serious charges for killing an American bald eagle, a federal crime punishable by up to two years in prison, or a maximum fine of $250,000.

Officials in Zimbabwe and abroad have desperately gone through similar measures to preserve the endangered African lion, with some researchers predicting that the species faces total extinction by 2050. But despite those lion conservation efforts, an American dentist successfully paid poachers roughly $50,000 dollars to behead and skin the lion—a “national symbol of Zimbabwe” named Cecil—because he wanted to have it.

Because of this reckless act, as Daily Kos writer Jen Palmer notes, park officials in Zimbabwe believe Cecil’s 24 cubs are at risk, because the mature, 13-year-old lion won’t be there to protect them. 

While humans are privy to that information, people like Walter J. Palmer—the Minnesota dentist—flagrantly disregard animal protection laws and respect for other cultures as a matter of self-indulgence. That this tends to happen in African and other non-Western countries speaks to the settler-colonialist approach that’s been characterized by American and European travel, tourism, and settlement for hundreds of years.

Instead of Westerners approaching the natural resources and wildlife of nations like Zimbabwe with the care they’d expect for their homeland, other lands are viewed as areas of conquest—as property that’s wild free for looting and desecration without any real consequences.

It’s part of the privilege of not only being wealthy and white, but also a citizen of a country like the United States, or even Spain, where the alleged poachers hailed from. Citizens of Western nations often take for granted that the state of global politics affords them the ability to move through most of the world with relative freedom. On the whole, they’re not subject to the travel bans, financial barriers, or racial and ethnic prejudices that non-Western peoples must contend with.

(Sorry, this embed was not found.)

For example, one of the only times that the United States got a taste of its own medicine came last fall, at the height of the Ebola panic. At that time, many Americans characterized Africa as a barren, disease-riddled wasteland, an extension of their fears about the virus potentially spreading stateside. Undoubtedly, the beliefs aligned with historical representations of Africa as a savage, monolithic land, rather than as a continent with several languages, nations, and cultures.

In a 2014 profile from the Guardian, African mothers reported the prejudice their children faced at school. Shoana Solomon’s nine-year-old daughter was told by her classmates: “You’re from Liberia, so you have a disease,” while her sister “was asked to temporarily remove her daughter from school: a girl who has never been to Liberia, and has not had contact with anyone returning from Liberia for two years.”

In a stunning rebuke, Rwanda—a country that went unaffected by the virus—turned the tables by requiring all travelers from the U.S. and Spain to be screened for Ebola, given the few cases that emerged.

If that was a shock to the system last October, it should’ve been. As Samira Sawlani wrote at Media Diversified, white tourists in non-Western countries enjoy privileges afforded by a historical power dynamic that continues to benefit past colonizers at the expense of the oppressed. “[T]he benefits gained by the white population be they expats, tourists or residents is a result of the way they are perceived, a concept inherited from our colonial past,” Sawlani noted.

It’s a privilege that is commonly exploited by people like Walter Palmer. Last year, viral photos of 19-year-old Kendall Jones showed the Texas woman gallantly standing, weapon in tow, above the many “exotic” (if not endangered) animals she killed while hunting in African countries. BuzzFeed‘s Ryan Broderick reported that the photographed hunting trips netted Jones a deal for a TV reality show, as well as thousands of likes on Facebook—which took down her page after a major social media campaign was mounted against her. 

That Jones received so much positive attention, as well as job offers, for haplessly hunting and poaching animals, speaks to how those in power profit from exploiting those who lack the same privileges.

For someone with resources, it’s all too easy to abuse the system. Palmer hired a Spanish hunter to lure Cecil the Lion off a wildlife refuge, killing the animal with the help of accomplices on a neighboring land. That’s despite the fact that Cecil was special tagged to indicate his life should be spared. As the Guardian reports, this included a GPS tracker installed by researchers at Oxford University that has been running since 1999 as part of conservation efforts.

Indeed, Palmer has a pattern of trying to maneuver around animal protection laws out of his bloodthirsty lust for irresponsible hunting. According to the Associated Press, Palmer has a felony record in the U.S. for illegally hunting and killing a black bear in Wisconsin. “Palmer had a permit to hunt but shot the animal outside the authorized zone in 2006, then tried to pass it off as being killed elsewhere, according to court documents,” the AP reports. “He was given one year probation and fined nearly $3,000.”

Although authorities in Zimbabwe are still searching for both Palmer and his hired henchman, it’s not immediately clear if they will be brought to justice for the crime. As Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force head Johnny Rodrigues told the press, killing Cecil—a protected animal—carries a prison sentence of two to five years. “There’s considerable embarrassment about this—the Americans have banned the import of elephant trophies,” Rodrigues said. “We believe the head and pelt are still in Bulawayo. … They should be charged with poaching.”

Whether or not Palmer, if held liable, will be extradited to Zimbabwe remains to be seen. But if justice is truly a great equalizer, he can and should be forced to stand in court and be made accountable for senselessly killing an animal and plundering a country’s wildlife. Because it’s not only an environmental abuse, it’s also an exercise in using privilege not for good, but for greed. 

Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice.

Photo via GeoBeats News/YouTube

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton

Derrick Clifton is an identity and culture reporter and columnist. His work has appeared on NBC News, the Guardian, Vox, the Root, Quartz, MSNBC, HLN, and Mic. He is the communications manager for ProPublica Illinois.