On Cecil The Lion, Walter Palmer and the Morality of Hunting

Anyone with an internet connection can hardly have missed the outpouring of grief which accompanied Walter Palmer’s murder of Cecil the lion outside Hwange wildlife sanctuary in Zimbabwe last month. The nature of Cecil’s death was particularly nasty, having been lured from the sanctuary with meat, only to be severely wounded with a crossbow bolt and finished off, almost two days later, with a bullet. He was then decapitated, skinned and his corpse left to rot in the sun. That those responsible allegedly tried and failed to then destroy Cecil’s tracking collar only adds to the sordid nature of the killing. Hunt guide Theo Bronkhorst and landowner Honest Ndlovu have both been charged with poaching by the Zimbabwean authorities. Walter Palmer returned to the US, but is now being sought for extradition.

The sordid business has reignited the debate surrounding the morality of trophy hunting, an industry, worth $190m in Africa, which revolves around people paying thousands of dollars to kill a wild animal under conditions guaranteed to ensure the hunter an easy, safe kill. That the hunters are almost invariably rich, white and Western adds an undercurrent of colonialist entitlement to the situation. For all the consensus on the nastiness of the act of hunting itself, reaction to Cecil’s death has peripherally raised other questions about the hypocrisy of selective outrage and the wider, often ignored problems of humanity’s role in selecting which species are permitted to live and which are not.

walter palmer

Photo: Facebook

While plenty have flippantly asked why Cecil’s death in particular has drawn such ire when hundreds of lions have been killed recently in Zimbabwe alone, there’s nothing inherently wrong with taking one notable case as a starting point for asking questions about a wider issue. Just as we mourn family members and friends but not every single other human death on the planet, it is unrealistic to expect identical outpourings of grief towards animals of whom we have no direct understanding or knowledge, even if many share the concern over plummeting wildlife population numbers. The fact Cecil had a name and was beloved among those who knew him is indeed important, because it reminds us that if even this special lion can be so heartlessly butchered, what chance do the rest of them have?

Similarly, it is a false equivalence to ask why Cecil’s death matters after he led a relatively long and free life when mistreatment of animals in the Western world is so prevalent, particularly when it comes to such practices as battery farming the animals producing the food which ends up on supermarket shelves. Animal welfare in all areas of life undeniably needs to be put under much greater scrutiny, but as shocking as Cecil’s extended suffering prior to his death was, it was the exception rather than the rule for an industry which values ‘clean’ kills, if only for the hunter’s pride and the inconvenience of having to track a wounded creature for hours and days afterwards to collect the trophy. The difference between battery farming and hunting is that, for its undeniable horrors, battery farming ultimately serves a purpose in creating food. Hunting means killing an animal for no other discernable reason than the hunter’s personal pride.

The real issues arise from the resulting online outrage. Few would argue with the anger and grief which followed Cecil’s death, but the form it has taken and the aims it has persued are considerably more problematic. The internet’s lynch mob tendencies when it comes to online shaming has a profoundly negative track record when it comes to debating and reasoning out difficult issues. This can be attributed to the tendency for any voices dissenting from the consensus to be immediately shouted down, if not turned into a target themselves. It is morality by echo chamber, where right and wrong are absolutes and cruelty and injustice are called out not to improve the lives of others or make a fairer, more ethically sound world, but as a statement of one’s virtue and for the approval of likeminded peers. It is a dangerous precedent which corrupts concepts of truth and free speech.

Photo: Global Hunting Resources

Consider the renewed calls for trophy hunting to be banned. On the face of it, this is an easy case to make: no living being should be destroyed for the sake of another’s ego. The easiness of the target unfortunately means that any attempt to introduce complexity into the debate is roundly ignored, even condemned. In isolation, hunting is a deeply unpleasant practice. Paradoxically, it may also represent the best chance for many of the animals in question to be saved from extinction. There’s no question that many of the benefits of hunting, as stated by its most ardent supporters, are grossly overblown. A 2013 study, for instance, revealed that little of the money generated by the industry ended up helping local communities in any meaningful way. Equally, the regulations in place to control the quotas of hunted animals is notoriously lax, while illegal hunting, as Cecil’s case demonstrates, is rife. The dwindling numbers of many of the most prized trophy animals only further proves how horrendously mismanaged the whole situation continues to be.

The wrinkle is that hunting is far from being the only threat to these animals’ survival. Less malicious, but arguably vastly more dangerous, is the ballooning human population growth in Africa, increasingly infringing on wildlife hunting grounds and consuming many of the resources they rely on to survive. This in turn leads to a rise in the number of animal attacks on humans, causing the animals to be hunted down either for retribution or as a guarantee of safety. An increase in population also means an increase in farming, requiring extensive grazing ground and only further eating into the territory where wildlife is able to sustainably survive. In Asia, the increased affluence of nations like China and Vietnam means demand for ivory and animal bone used in traditional medicines or as status symbols has skyrocketed, proportionately increasing their poaching value in relation to how stringently their trade is controlled or outlawed. That is to say nothing of the dangers of climate change, pollution and countless other factors: you can read more about those at the WWF website.

With corruption and mismanagement endemic in the systems supposed to protect the most vulnerable animals, it is no surprise that increasingly affluent and powerful poachers are coming up with more grotesquely innovative and technologically advanced methods of securing their prizes with every passing year. The sad truth is that humanity will inevitably kill off anything which does not have tangible value in being kept alive. For that reason, a properly regulated hunting industry may indeed play an instrumental role in one day guaranteeing the survival of certain species. If there is money to be made in breeding these animals to fund a profitable industry, even one revolving around their eventual deaths, humanity will find a way. If their survival relies on nothing more than sentiment, current and historical form suggests extinction is surely guaranteed.


Hunting is a deeply unpleasant practice, but to ban it outright may ultimately prove destructive in view of greater but less easily morally quantifiable threats to animal survival elsewhere. This is not to suggest that there may not be alternatives – this article for the New Yorker details how Rwanda has revived its gorilla population through ecotourist permits – but that relying on reactionary judgments rather than careful reasoning is not the way to find them. Hunting will almost certainly continue to exist, one way or the other. As despicable as its brutality is, it seems preferable to me that the human desire to kill animals be at least controlled and channelled in a productive and responsible way, even if we’re a long way from that point right now, rather than being left solely to poachers and profiteers.

A concluding note for those who have participated in the witch hunt for Cecil’s murderer, Walter Palmer. As Jimmy Fallon, of all people, very correctly pointed out, Palmer’s conviction, or as some social media extremists childishly demand, death, ultimately achieves nothing. Yes, he should be held accountable for his crimes, but while focusing so much rage and attention on one man may satisfy one’s personal thirst for vengeance and receive plenty of likes and retweets in the online echo chambers, it will neither bring Cecil back to life or help protect the countless other animals destined to be slaughtered as a result of illegal hunting and poaching. If anything, it merely proves that the motives of those calling for his death for their personal satisfaction are no better than those of the man himself. True justice is not taking an eye for an eye. Palmer turning Cecil into a trophy does not justify seeking to turn Palmer into one. Instead, to quote Fallon again, honour Cecil by making good from the tragedy of his death. Debate and donate. Don’t blindly hate.

Xander Markham

Londoner with a serious love of all things James Bond, most things Nintendo, plus crumpets, labradors, hammocks and horrible puns. Not necessarily in that order.

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