What’s Really Wrong With What Walter Palmer Did in Zimbabwe

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Walter Palmer (left) posing with a dead lion.

Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer is currently a strong contender for most reviled person on the internet. Days ago, Palmer allegedly baited and killed a popular lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil with the help of two hunting guides. The story is getting attention on social media because the lion was popular among tourists and fitted with a radio tracking collar for study. But the derision Palmer rightly deserves comes from something more general.

Palmer’s actions have given him well-earned status as an international villain, but before I go further in heaping scorn on this prick, let’s make it clear that those people who are threatening the man with physical harm are little better than he is. Palmer’s actions are those of an asshole, pure and simple, but that doesn’t earn him a death warrant, nor does it validate attempts to drive his place of work into the ground. Other people work there too, and they do not deserve to become collateral damage as a result of Palmer’s unsavory behavior.

Now down to brass tacks. Trophy hunting is a repugnant, vile activity. It involves such a level of callous disrespect for the beauty and diversity of the natural world that it is difficult to image anyone who participates in it as anything less than scum. It is indicative of the most decadent sense of entitlement, of a mind that welcomes any opportunity for self-indulgence, regardless of the consequences. There is no ethical deliberation that can produce a substantive claim in favor of killing an animal so you can decorate your home with its remains. Palmer’s behavior is that of a pig, and the same goes for people like him.

Consider the fact that the diversity of the natural world is plummeting at an alarming rate, potentially signalling the onset of a sixth mass extinction event. The population of African lions, for instance, has dropped from an estimated 400,000 in the 1940s to as few as 32,000 today, largely as a result of human interference. Many African lion populations are highly isolated, running real risks of succumbing to the ill effects of inbreeding depressions. The selfish insolence of a person who thinks it their right to claim one of those animals for personal pleasure is staggering. Alone, trophy hunters from the U.S. kill as many as 600 lions each year – legally. But the fact that it is legal does not make it ethical. Trophy hunting is a sport for rich swine, pure and simple.

To be clear, this is not some anti-hunting screed. Many people hunt ethically. They hunt species with well-managed populations and do so within the limits of established law and widely recognized customs of sportsmanship. They eat the animals they kill and make use of inedible remains whenever they can. These are good people who are often actively involved in conservation.

This is not the case with someone who baits an animal from a vulnerable population that is entirely unaccustomed to human predation, kills it (in Palmer’s case very poorly), skins and decapitates it, and leaves most of its remains to rot in the sun. That is not sportsmanship. That is an act of pure avarice.

Walter Palmer doesn’t deserve death threats, and his coworkers and employees don’t deserve to be driven from their jobs as a result of his behavior. But he – and those like him – do deserve to be regularly reminded that trophy hunting vulnerable, threatened, or endangered animals is a depraved and contemptible form of recreation.

Cecil, the lion that was killed by Palmer and his guides on the outskirts of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park.

Cecil, the lion that was killed by Palmer and his guides on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.


An addendum:

It’s worth taking a moment to address an issue that inevitably crops up in discussions of trophy hunting: money. The decadent aristocrats who gallivant around the globe shooting majestic animals for personal pleasure do so at great personal expense, and some of that money makes its way into the coffers of conservation efforts. There are even some indications that the economic incentives associated with trophy hunting have led to an expansion of habitat for a variety of game species, as private landowners attempt to leverage their way into a profitable market. In other words, there are pragmatic reasons why the contentious issue of trophy hunting can’t be adjudicated solely on the basis of its general repugnance.

That being the case, I would suggest the economic value of trophy hunting is more indicative of a methodological flaw in modern conservation efforts, and deeper problems reflective of the apparently paltry value humanity places on the earth’s natural resources. Quite frankly, there is little I find more disheartening than the fact that most societies can rarely see past the dollar value of anything. To be sure, this perspective springs from an idealistic place, but it’s worth keeping in mind that conservation should be a task valued and celebrated in and of itself, regardless of economic returns. I have no idea how to motivate people to selflessly invest in conservation efforts, so a more practical remedial option might be to work to better enforce laws that guide the money from trophy hunting into the right hands and prevent people from killing animals that still have the potential to play a useful role in ecosystem sustainability.

None of which is to back down from my initial position. Trophy hunting is an entirely disreputable activity, and the motivations that drive someone to fly around the world to kill a creature just for the purpose of festooning their den with its remains are completely alien to me. They are clearly quite wealthy, well positioned to do the unspeakable and just give money to conservation efforts. In many instances, direct donations to reputable conservation agencies might offer greater assurance that money makes it to places outside the pockets of venal bureaucrats. Legally done or not, I have a hard time viewing trophy hunting as remotely sportsmanlike. But as long as its practitioners are willing to play by the rules and pay their weight, I’m not sure there is anything in the short term that can be done about it.

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