How one lion reveals our race problems

The death of Cecil the lion in what may have been a poaching in Zimbabwe was still filling headlines worldwide Thursday — and spurring Internet vigilantes everywhere, who are descending upon the life of Dr. Walter Palmer, his killer, in droves. On July 1, Palmer shot the lion in circumstances that suggest he and his guides may have conspired to lure him away from a protected park and into an area where he could be legally killed. The circumstances of his death were particularly grisly, as Palmer shot Cecil with a poorly-aimed arrow that left the lion suffering for 40 hours before he was tracked and killed — and then Palmer removed his head and skinned him before illegally removing a tracking collar. As the horrified world debates poaching, animal cruelty, and whether Palmer should be extradited while vigilantes threaten his family and business, there’s another important conversation: One about the racialised and colonialist implications of the case and the way people are responding to it.

Sport hunting is big business across former African colonies, many of which derive substantial income from fees paid for hunting permits along with monies paid out to local guides and other support personnel. Seventeen percent of the nation’s land is used for game parks specifically dedicated to this purpose. These carefully orchestrated ‘hunts’ are troubling echoes of the safaris of yore, in which sprightly white colonists ventured into the bush, hands held by native guides as they brought down big game and recovered grisly trophies to bring home to Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and other colonial nations. Such guides worked within the framework of a system that still exists today, one in which white people wield considerable power as they exploit natural resources.

As the Internet erupts with outrage over Cecil, members of Black Lives Matter and other activist movements have rightly expressed grave concerns over the fact that the world seems more concerned with the death of a single lion than the issue of systemic police violence. ‘The lion is already dead,’ Elon James White pointed out. ‘Implementing policy and dealing with policing practices can be dealt with NOW.’

This is a movement that has been repeatedly asking why the United States continues to devalue black lives, especially in light of a year of brutal police killings, with a death by gunshot, in a jail cell, or by choking happening nearly every day in America. The issue of justice for America’s black community is pressing, and it’s one that hasn’t been resolved. Meanwhile, the Internet rallies its troops over a lion, demonstrating that online activism across classes, boundaries, and borders is possible — but not on behalf of human beings. And while it is possible to care about multiple things at the same time — to be saddened by the death of a lion and furious at systemic racial violence — this is clearly not a case of caring about two things at once.

The reaction to Cecil’s death at times is like #AllLivesMatter taken to an extreme, illustrating the worst side of animal rights activists, who sometimes seem willfully ignorant when it comes to the nuance of complicated social issues. But it’s not just them who have trouble with a sense of perspective on the case. The life of a lion isn’t equivalent to that of a human being — but the fact that people think it is illustrates a great deal about the nation’s difficulty with engaging with racial issues.

From 1888 to 1965, when the nation tried to declare itself a republic, Zimbabwe — then Southern Rhodesia — existed as a British colony. It didn’t gain recognised independence until 1980, after years of struggle. Many African nations only achieved independence in the last few decades, and it’s worth noting that Zimbabwe’s attempt at freedom occurred in the same year the United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, an attempt at addressing grievous racial imbalances in the United States. Just as Zimbabwe has fought with its colonial past, the United States is still dealing with the legacy of slavery — neither independence nor the Civil Rights Act was able to magically undo centuries of history.

Like many former colonies, Zimbabwe is faced with significant financial and social challenges as a result of being stripped of its resources by former colonists and then offered bad deals by the International Monetary Fund and other organisations. Food insecurity is a pressing problem throughout the country, and the country is facing a ‘maternal mortality crisis.’ Meanwhile, Zimbabwe is still facing down the aftermath of civil war, the ravages of the Mugabe government, election fraud, and oppression of minority communities.

This is a problem that white, Western colonial powers — Europe and the United States — created.

One of the nation’s solutions has been the decision to turn to various modes of appealing to the Western tourist trade. Guided safaris in which people hunt with cameras, not guns, are a big part of the nation’s economy, as are licenses to take big game — and people are accompanied by local guides when they do it. At the same time, Zimbabwe is trying to engage in conservation to protect vulnerable species, deal with poaching, and preserve its natural beauty for future generations. The nation’s conservation organizations, parks authorities, and lawmakers are attempting to balance the need to generate income with the desire to avoid colonialism of a different flavor.

That taste really comes through when examining Dr. Walter Palmer’s response to accusations of possible poaching — one of his first actions was to throw his guides under the bus, claiming that he thought he was on a legal hunt.

‘In early July, I was in Zimbabwe on a bow hunting trip for big game. I hired several professional guides and they secured all proper permits,’ he said in a statement to his patients. ‘To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted.’ Despite claiming to be ready to cooperate with authorities on the case, he’s since mysteriously vanished into the ether, while Zimbabwe has called for his extradition, saying he fled the country before he could be brought up on charges.

Theo Bronkhorst, the guide accused of facilitating the possible poaching, is white, the owner of Bushman Safaris, a family-run firm that specializes in taking white ‘sport hunters’ into game parks and other regions to hunt. Notably, however, the man who owned the game park where they hunted, Honest Trymore Ndlovu, is black. There’s a complicated racial dynamic there with a white man and his family profiting from land owned by a black man — Ndlovu also takes his cut of the proceeds, but he’s the one being put in the position of having to cultivate and sell resources for rich white tourists. Palmer’s decision to shift blame rather than taking responsibility is a transparently obvious bid at trading on the fact that white Westerners are often treated preferentially by nations desperate to avoid disrupting the tourist trade.

Do all lives matter? Sure. But what we’ve learned over the last year is that for many, some lives matter more than others. In the United States, the lives of white people and police officers matter more than those of black people — and apparently, even the lives of lions matter more than those of the black community. The reaction to Cecil’s death tells us a great deal about how we still haven’t shaken our racist colonial past.

Image: Cecil — Hwange National Park, Vince O’Sullivan, Flickr