The Humanitarian Politics of Cecil the Lion

by Lauren Wallace

Two weeks ago Stephen Harper kicked off the election campaign. But it wasn’t clear if many Canadians were paying attention. Because the killing of Cecil the celebrity lion had already broken the Internet.

In case you missed it, in late July, Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, beheaded Cecil, a lion living in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Within days of news of the murder breaking, the public’s violent backlash sent Mr. Palmer into hiding. Major airlines, including Air Canada, banned shipments of hunting trophies from Africa; a global petition demanding justice accumulated over 300,00 signatures; PETA called for the killer to be hanged to death; and, donations were made to erect a life size bronze statue of the martyr lion.

Indeed, the poaching of Cecil the lion was unfortunate. But the righteous expressions of moral high ground that accompanied media discussions lay bare some key issues around representations of Africa that warrant further attention. Public shaming of Mr. Palmer focused on outrage over his sense of Western entitlement that led him to disregard Zimbabwean laws to kill “Africa’s most beloved lion”. Ironically, these selective narratives play into the same power dynamics and sense of entitlement that they set out to critique.

The wave of sentiment over the death of the lion was odd and is worth exploring. Perhaps the public outcry generated by Cecil’s death, just as public emotion over other instances of animal cruelty, reflects feelings of unfairness and injustice over unequal exchanges between humans and animals. The fact that Cecil’s unnatural death might cause his cubs to be killed by another lion prompted guilt over the way that the natural dominance of magnificent animals is upset by humans.

But the popular narrative of the lion’s death is also bolstered by two problematic stereotypes of Africans and their continent that are often mobilized in humanitarian discourse. In the first, Africa is a wild savannah ready to be explored on safari with deep jungles, massive pachyderms, and breathtaking sunsets. In the second, Africa is a dark continent that is poor and suffering, but could benefit from a needed hand up from Westerners. It is the second outlook that prompts thousands of undergraduate students to venture, often unethically, into medical clinics and hospitals on the continent each year to show how they have helped Africa on their medical school applications.

Accounts of Cecil play into both of these stereotypes in various ways. In the first version, the Western romanticization of a lion named Cecil reflects the fact that he made tourists’ vacations worthwhile. His death makes us uncertain about what might be left of a wild world that has for centuries had the power to elicit longing and fantasy and has carried the burden of fulfilling Westerners’ needs for exotic adventure. In the second narrative, Zimbabweans conservation efforts are to be assisted by Western calls for justice against Palmer. But in most versions, Africans themselves, except for faceless corrupt local guides are rarely included at all. Cyberspace is filled with images of Cecil but has been largely devoid of concerns for Zimbabwean people and the environment that the lion inhabited.

Zimbabweans have highlighted that while they have respect and pride for their wildlife, and for conservation efforts, many people have never actually heard of Cecil. The overwhelming attention for Cecil appears perplexing and disquieting to them in the face of so many other pressing socioeconomic issues, such as a gripping economic crisis, high rates of HIV and AIDS (fostered by persistent homophobia), and drought and starvation which are experienced by Zimbabwean citizens on a daily basis. In 2008, a long-running sanitation crisis caused by water shortages led to an outbreak of cholera that infected 100,000 and killed over 4,200. An outbreak of this magnitude threatens to repeat itself if living conditions are not improved. Arguably, the intense history of colonialism in Zimbabwe, lead by Cecil’s namesake, has contributed to the lack of economic development in the country.

The magnitude of the response of Western media and politicians is always seemingly incommensurate with the moral and humanitarian issues at hand. When you read about Africa in the media, reports are often not so much about the interests of Africans as they are about us. This was also well reflected in the lack of international media attention and political response to the Ebola epidemic until Ebola was perceived as a real threat to North Americans. Our fascination with Cecil’s death fits into this pattern.

Lauren Wallace ( is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada

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