A Lover of Nature
When Theodore Roosevelt retired from the presidency in 1909, he was only 50 years old and was looking for adventure. He found it when he set out for British East Africa (modern-day Kenya) to “collect” big game on an expedition for the Smithsonian Institution. Roosevelt and his expedition team arrived in Kenya in April of 1909 and by the time they were finished, nearly a year later, they had killed an astonishing 23,151 specimens, including 160 species of carnivores, ungulates, rodents, insectivores, and bats. The mammals alone numbered 5,013 specimens, including 9 lions, 13 rhinoceros, 20 zebras, 8 warthogs, and 4 hyenas. Each specimen was carefully documented by the Smithsonian naturalists to ensure its research value. It took eight years to catalog all of the material.
Though it is tempting to be appalled at the loss of life, Roosevelt was a lover of nature who dedicated himself to protecting both wildlife and natural resources. In spite of killing all those animals, he is still recognized as one of the world’s great conservationists and is even enshrined on Mt. Rushmore as one of our Nation’s heroes.
Cecil the lion
Fast-forward a hundred years and an American dentist is receiving death threats because he killed a single African lion. Unfortunately, this animal had a name and had been featured on a reality television show. It was a “beloved” lion – unless you happen to live in Africa. This reality was presented in vivid detail in a New York Times article entitled In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions by Goodwell Nzou, a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biosciences at Wake Forest University. Nzou grew up in a village in Zimbabwe that was surrounded by wildlife conservation areas.
“No lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname,” Nzou writes. “They are objects of terror.”
Nzou recounts the story of a lion that prowled the area where he grew up, killing livestock and sucking the life out of the village. When it was finally killed, Nzou writes, “no one cared whether its murderer was a local person or a white trophy hunter, whether it was poached or killed legally. We danced and sang about the vanquishing of the fearsome beast”.
An Absurdist Circus
Hundreds of lions are killed legally every year in Africa. It a is big business that supports wildlife conservation. So, why pick on one guy? If he is guilty of violating wildlife laws, let’s give him a fair trial, fine him if he is found guilty, and move on. A public lynching seems like a hypocritical overreaction.
Though lion populations have declined precipitously over the past 50 years, the overall classification of the Lion is only listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), because lion subpopulations actually increased in four southern African countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe). Even the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service stopped short of designating lions as endangered, saying they are not at immediate risk of extinction. Sport hunting, as troubling as it is to some people, may be the least of the lions’ problems. Human populations in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to double by 2050. We may already be seeing the evidence of this human population explosion as boatloads of African refugees pour across the Mediterranean into southern Europe.
So, what are we to make of all this. I love Goodwell Nzou’s observation that:
“The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation … into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.”
I guess I’ll just leave it at that.
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