The recent killing of a lion in Zimbabwe has caused a global outcry. Front page stories recount how guides for an American dentist and hunter, Dr. Walter Palmer, supposedly lured the animal out of its protected habitat, allowing Palmer to shoot him with a bow and arrow, and later to behead him - the stuffed head being the hunter’s trophy for which he paid $50,000 in fees. Considering the number of people dying in wars throughout the world, the number of undernourished as well as the homeless, it may seem bizarre that so much attention at this time has been given to a specific animal.
Much of the outcry about the killing centered on the decreasing lion population in Africa. Concern was also raised in the context of hunters and poachers searching for exotic trophies such as the tusks of elephants or the horns of white rhinoceroses. President Obama made reference to reducing the ivory trade during his recent visit to Kenya.
Animals have importance in different ways. The particular lion in question, Cecil, was popular with locals and visitors to Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe. Although not about Cecil, Walt Disney’s animated musical “The Lion King” was a huge success.
Pet animals have taken on political significance. Much press attention was given to President Obama’s selection when he bought his daughters a Portuguese Water Dog named Bo, with references to President Clinton’s cat Socks or President Franklin Roosevelt’s dog Fala. Roosevelt opened his 1944 presidential campaign with references to the Republicans attack on the family dog in what became known as the famous “Fala Speech,” an example of how humor can serve to criticize opponents that is well worth quoting at length:
“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my families don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself ... But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.”
Perhaps no animal captures national symbolic importance like a crocodile in Burundi. The country has been ravaged by civil war; different ethnic groups have been unable to sustain harmonious co-existence. But anytime you meet someone from Burundi, from whatever group, just ask how Gustave is doing and you will get a smile.
Gustave is a Nile crocodile who is rumored to have killed as many as 300 people along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. A film was made about Gustave called “Capturing the Killer Croc” and shown on PBS in 2004. Much of what we know about Gustave comes from Patrice Faye, a French expatriate who studies crocodiles around Burundi and has hunted Gustave since 1998 similar to Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick in Herman Melville’s novel. During the shooting of the film, a sighting of Gustave showed that he was about 20 feet long, weighed more than 2,000 pounds, and had bullet scars in his body. He may be the largest crocodile in Africa, if not the world. At the end of the film, an elaborate cage was set up with a live goat inside as bait. At night, and barely filmed by an infrared camera, the cage was destroyed and the goat disappeared, supposedly eaten by Gustave. Gustave has not been sighted since he drowned a fisherman in 2008, but his legend lives on - a computer-generated giant crocodile named Gustave who hunts people on land was depicted in the fiction movie “Primeval” (2007). The legend of Gustave remains one of the few things that the people of war-torn Burundi agree upon.
The government of Zimbabwe has called for the extradition of Dr. Palmer on poaching charges. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating the circumstances surrounding the killing. Donations to Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit have surged. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on July 30 to begin to tackle illegal poaching and trafficking of wildlife.
The killing of one lion has caused a global outcry. Dr. Palmer has become an international pariah. If only the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in which thousands of people are killed and millions displaced got similar attention and eventual punishment. People, after all, are animals as well.