This is a savage land. You know it. You’ve watched the news or read The Iliad, you’ve been bullied or seen Wild Kingdom. As a civilization we’ve tried to cool the blood, to stand taller than the tall grass. We’ve learned to see far.
But it’s new progress. Only a hundred years ago, our reaction would have baffled people. Lions ate Christians, you know. They wrestled Jacobs and lorded over deep dark Africa. But this year, like a fable in dark satire, Walter from Minnesota slew a lion named Cecil, beloved and studied for science. Fires of outrage lit social media skies. Times, they are a–changin’.
Now I would think of a dentist as a tidy, intelligent and deliberate sort of guy. The striking shortage of tense and sexy TV dramas about periodontics, the tooth fairy’s conspicuous absence from The Lord of the Rings tempt me to presume on the profession’s behalf some indifference to glory. My tooth doctor archetype is a good neighbour, and wears a sweater. He attends to the suffering and dignity of his patients.
In striking contrast to my expectations, the notorious Dr. Palmer likes to hunt, and finds time for selfies with the fallen prize. He lured black-maned Cecil from the safety of home and pierced him with an arrow. The suffering beast wore down for 40 hours as he followed. He peeled the patriarch’s hide away. He drove off with his head. It set him back $50k US.
Well, it can’t be helped that we’re shocked (villain!): we aren’t really raised anymore for that relationship with nature, brutal and frank. Meats are cleaned and shrink-wrapped for cold shelves, in white light, where we find them on sleepy weekends. Far from the abattoir, we tag the Internet with graffiti rage against blood sport. The sentiment does us credit, but let’s not forget: we’re children of caves and spears and fire. We followed the game.
The cave paintings tell charcoal stories, umber glories of brave hunters who fed generations. Hunters of our time tell a new story: we are become the force of nature, and we hunt to preserve the animals. Trophy hunting’s a conservation model now, not quite Evil’s official pastime. It fills the pockets of national and provincial parks. South Africa and the United States are its poster children—and the only two countries that show large scale increases in wildlife. South Africa’s lion population is up, but elsewhere down. Alarmingly down.
Cecil’s harsh reality was this: if not the live market, then the meat market. If locals can’t have the kind of money that lion trophies earn, they’ll kill them themselves—for food, for money (much less money) or just to protect their cattle. The truth is, trophy animals simply die in far fewer numbers. “If it pays, it stays.”
These are the bizarre results of habitat encroachment. In a world where, as a species, we’ve succeeded wildly, our mother Africa is one of its poorest regions. The people face cruel choices. Nowhere else does the population grow so fast. As the lions decline, people have doubled. They’ll double again by 2050. Of every four homo sapiens, one will be African. Wild species will struggle and diminish.
Nature and civilization, our broken family, are at close quarters. Our problems are hardly confined to lions. In the last 45 years, over half our vertebrate species are gone: 52% of mammals, fish, birds and reptiles. The appetites of overpopulation cause displacement, over-exploitation of resources, climate change.
Mourn the lion in the grass; but mind those horizons. We need to be smart, and deliberate. They follow close behind us, the caves and spears and fire.