Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On Walter Palmer, Cecil the Lion, and the History of the White Hunter in Africa

By now we've all read about Walter Palmer's killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.  We're all outraged; we're calling for the guy's head on a platter, for the destruction of his dental practice, for his financial and social ruin.  And he does seem like a real choice asshole.  I have to say that I feel complete hatred for this guy, but I think it might do us some good to check our outrage and to consider where it's coming from.   

Walter Palmer and some other white dude, dead cat, black man, hunting dogs

Yesterday, in the wake of the take down of Walter Palmer, I posted on Facebook that I was going to go stand outside of Whole Foods and post pictures and contact information for everyone I saw leaving with the dead carcass of an animal in their grocery bags.  I posted such a thing because to my mind -- and to the minds of many ethical vegans -- the suffering of the animals that become food in our culture is as unconscionable as the murder of Zimbabwe's beloved lion. But I'm in the minority, here, and here's my analysis of why that's the case.

In the west, we have mythologized lions and other "exotic" big game animals that exist in Africa.  The image of Africa that we have bought into is of a place devoid of human life (or filled with warring, starving, diseased human life) and instead populated with lions, elephants, and other large regal creatures that we feel should be preserved and conserved.  Never mind that actual Africans are often displaced from their homelands in the service of creating wildlife preserves.  And never mind that sport hunting -- sustained by white men from the U.S. -- provides substantial financial benefits to the economies of the countries that allow such hunts to continue.  And never mind that so-called ecotourist safaris result in much greater environmental destruction to ecosystems than hunting safaris.

Oh look, the circle of life that doesn't involve any humans or any animals eating one another.

The history of big game hunting safaris in Africa and such safaris’ current connections to contemporary notions of ecotourism, a model that promises, according to the Ecotourism Society, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people” (qtd. in Duffy 6), are issues that are deeply implicated in an imperialist model of colonial exploitation, one that persisted after many African nations had gained independence from their former colonizers.  In fact, ecotourism in places like Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania is based on a history of big game hunting that happened simultaneously alongside the establishment of colonial rule.  

According to Brian Herne in White Hunters: The Golden Age of African Safaris, the term “White Hunter” originated in British East Africa after the turn of the twentieth-century, but “big game hunting was already popular in other parts of the ‘Dark Continent,’ notably in South Africa, where . . . [white] hunters . . . had been active long before Somaliland and East Africa came into vogue” (3).  Herne’s text examines the heyday of the White Hunter in Africa, beginning with the first safari business – started by R. J. Cunninghame, Bill Judd, George Outram, and Leslie Tarston around 1903 (7) – to the decades of the 1960s and 70s during which increased hunting regulations and conservation measures took hold. 

While Herne’s text focuses on, glorifies, and mythologizes the legacies of white hunters, Edward J. Steinhart’s Black Poachers, White Hunters: A Social History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya, focuses on the ways that indigenous African peoples’ hunting practices were literally and rhetorically criminalized in order for white safaris to thrive.  Steinhart asserts that “the struggles over the definition and control of hunting and the politics and revenues which it yielded may be key to understanding the contests of power that went on for seven decades between settlers, officials, and Africans” (18).  Furthermore, this Western demonstration of domination of nature paralleled “European racial and class domination over black Africans” (Duffy 294); therefore, colonized subjects and hunted animals occupy the same rhetorical space in the colonial milieu in which big game hunting came of age.

Equally problematic, at least in some cases, is what happens when animals are protected under the auspices of wilderness refuges, a more recent phenomenon that has occurred as a result of species decimation due to historically unchecked hunting practices.  In recent decades, photographic safaris have replaced most hunting safaris, and animals are often protected – at least in theory – in wildlife preserves.  But if the colonial mindset and project traditionally equated indigenous human life with animal life and valued neither, then the wildlife refuge system has often benefited animals and corporations at the expense of indigenous human populations.  

For example, according to Martha Honey in Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?, when the Ndumo Game Reserve was established in 1924, the Tonga people of South Africa were forced to leave the area and were denied access to water within the reserve (367).  In the late 1980s, when the Ndumo and Tembe reserves planned to merge so that the Tembe elephants could access water in Ndumo, the Tonga were once again threatened with the possibility of relocating, but “in the mid-1990s, the villagers, with the assistance of rural development workers, struck a deal whereby they agreed to move farther south” (367).  

Rosaleen Duffy, in her study A Trip Too Far: Ecotourism, Politics and Exploitation, comments that “in the developing world, there is an added layer to the politics of tourism because of memories of colonial control,” and in places like Kenya, “conservation and tourism schemes have replicated the colonial system of separating people and the environment” (101).  Furthermore, most of the income generated by such reserves benefits the private corporations that run the wilderness and photographic safaris, with minimal income being generated for indigenous populations that are often displaced and disenfranchised by these business ventures.[i]  

In the current moment, according to Honey, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa permit “trophy hunting only in designated ‘blocks’ in game controlled areas and reserves” (243).  According to Duffy, ecotourism in Africa, like hunting, is dependent upon the “politically laden image of the destination country” and, in the contemporary moment, “host societies are packaged and commodified for consumption by an external audience, promising the exotic, the unspoiled, the pristine and – even worse – the primitive” (xii).  

Many African countries have opted for a more conservationist form of tourism, given the rate at which indigenous species were being decimated by hunters.  For example, Kenya outlawed hunting in 1977 and that country’s tourism industry is now based primarily on (at least on the surface) a more environmentally conscious model.  Critics like Duffy, however, claim that “ecotourism is firmly locked into notions of ‘green capitalism,’ and thus it cannot provide radical sustainable development, contrary to its supporters’ claims.  Ecotourism is a business . . . and it focuses on profit rather than conservation” (x).  Furthermore, other African countries have banned hunting only to reopen the practice because of the financial benefits that it affords.  Tanzania banned hunting in 1973, but reallowed the practice in 1978, and despite the fact that the elephant population dropped from 600,000 in the 1960s to around 100,000 in the 1990s, Tanzania still allows the culling of elephants to continue (Honey 247).  Ecotourism has a problematic relationship with hunting, which is often seen as prohibition to poaching.  According to Honey, 

Sport hunting is . . . the ultimate paradox for ecotourism.  Although most of those involved in conservation and nature tourism find hunting distasteful, cruel, and ethically reprehensible, many admit that if properly managed, trophy hunting helps curb poaching and does less environmental damage and brings in much more foreign exchange than do photographic safaris. (244) 

Because fewer people hunt than take photos and because the cost of hunting expeditions is significantly higher than the cost of photographic safaris,[ii] environmentally “friendly” photographic tours often result in more environmentally destructive issues, including more pollution, more garbage, and more destruction of terrain as photographers often drive off roads to get shots of animals stalking their prey (Honey 245).

Unfortunately, that's not how it goes

In her fiction and nonfiction, Joy Williams is critical of both big game hunting and its seemingly ecofriendly counterpart, the photographic safari, because of the false images of animals and land that both practices sell to Westerners.  In her essay “Safariland,” Williams claims that the “desired illusion here is . . . Africa,” a place that allows those on safari to feel that they “have entered a portion of the earth that wild animals have retained possession of.  The illusion here is that wild animals exist” (27).  In this essay, Williams critiques the lies of the photographic safari, particularly the lie that there exist any animal populations that have not been marked, sold, placed, trapped, fragmented, scattered, and positioned within the perimeters of the safari.  

To make this point, she provides numerous examples from a photographic safari in Botswana, a place that has been marketed as “the Africa for this type of tourist” (28), and the ways that animal movement and life have been historically restricted as a consequence of the colonial division of territory.  She describes the 1,875 miles of fence that the government started erecting in 1954, “to segregate cattle from wild herds” (29).  This fence has been an environmental nightmare: “hundreds of thousands of wild animals have died against it in their futile trek toward water in time of drought.  The fence runs everywhere, and where the fence runs, the animals do not” (29), and this fence has caused the near extinction of zebra and buffalo populations in the most of Botswana.  

Williams’ analysis of the photographic safari is a critique of not only the historical treatment of wild animals in Africa but also of the idea that what one sees when one looks through the lens of a camera is legitimate and authentic, somehow the real Africa: “but this is Africa,” the safari goers think.  “This really feels like it could be Africa at last” (39).  The Africa that is presented to them is, as Duffy claims, a “politically laden image” (xii), a marketing ploy, a lie packaged to lure the environmentally conscious tourist to a pristine, precolonial facsimile of “Africa.”  Furthermore, Williams’s essay continually undercuts the illusion that people who go on such safaris are doing something positive for the environment by pointing out the ways that the animals that fill their photographic frames are positioned as they are because of a long history of environmental exploitation that persists into the present moment.

In another of the essays that appears in Ill Nature, “The Killing Game,” Williams also takes hunters to task, particularly the rhetoric of conservation and respect for the animal they employ to justify killing as sport.  She claims,

instead of monitoring animals . . . wildlife managers should start hanging telemetry gear around hunters’ necks to study their attitudes and record their conversations.  It would be grisly listening, but it would tune out for good the suffering as sacrament and spiritual experience nonsense that some hunting apologists employ. (49-50)

The tone in “The Killing Game” is decidedly harsher than that of “Safariland,” perhaps because Williams is more sympathetic to the photographers, at least as far as their good intentions are concerned.  But when it comes to hunters, she clearly has no patience; as for the subsistence arguments, she says, “please. . . .  The subsistence line in such a cynical one” (51).  For hunters, she asserts, “the animal becomes the property of the hunter.  Alive, the beast belongs only to itself.  This is unacceptable to the hunter” (51).  By the end of the essay, Williams’s tone is scathing.  Hunters’ arguments are “self-serving,” sport hunting “immoral;” the practice is “grotesque,” and it is time, she says, “to stop being conned and cowed by hunters.”  Killing animals in this fashion is unjustifiable, no matter what rhetoric is offered by the hunter; according to Williams, “hunters make wildlife dead, dead, dead” (70), and arguments about conservation, species population control, and subsistence are transparent excuses to justify the fact that hunters are sadists who enjoy both the infliction of pain and the annihilation of animals. 

And now for something completely different.

From where I'm sitting, the outrage over the murder of Cecil looks a lot like the familiar narrative of the Concerned White Person seeking to help Africa -- never mind that white people are the cause of what's wrong in the first place.  And, yes, we're all calling out the Even Worse Than Us White Guy, but our doing so lets us hang out in comfortable self-righteous indignation while simultaneously allowing us to feel good about championing the cause of a single African lion.

It's so much easier to do this than to consider our own roles with regard to the suffering of the animals that we murder in multitudes in our country everyday so that we can eat them.  They don't register, because we would never afford a chicken (or a cow, or a pig, or a fish) the same sort of misplaced reverence we've decided to ascribe to Cecil.  And this is in no way to suggest that Cecil doesn't deserve that reverence and that his death doesn't warrant our outrage.

It is, however, to suggest that we'd do well to recognize the hypocrisy of that outrage.

[i] Honey provides statistics for several such ventures that indicate that “the involvement of and benefits to the local community have so far been fairly minimal” (368).  For more information, see chapter 10, “South Africa: People and Parks under Majority Rule” in Honey.

[ii] Honey says that “a hunter brings in 100 times more revenue than a nonhunting tourist; the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania estimates it is 55 times more.  Either way, the difference is enormous” (245).


  1. check, check

    So, Laura, second attempt at posting a comment, which is more of a request for you to extend it. Killing animals for trophy hunting and killing animals for food seems to involve different purposes. Talk about this, please.

    Peaceably, Marsha Lee

  2. Marsha Lee,
    Indeed, and while I recognize that these killings take place for different reasons, I'm equally opposed to both. From the ecofeminist position that I occupy, it's about the belief that participating in the suffering of others is wrong (regardless of the purpose) if one can choose not to -- and I realize that choice is complicated, here, in that such choices necessarily imply a position of privilege to make them. The ethical vegan position is about the belief that animals have an inherent right to exist. And it's also about wanting to look at the ways that oppressions between various species (animals and humans) are connected. I've done a considerable amount of work looking at those linkages, particularly with regard to the way that the west conceptualizes "Africa," its people, and its animals. Thanks for reading. :)

  3. Excellent article; well done.

  4. I don't understand why the last paragraph says the reverence for Cecil is misplaced, and then says Cecil deserves reverence. It would make more sense without the "misplaced". Thank you for writing the article. I agree with your position and I feel more educated after reading it.

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