The Colonial Roots Of Trophy Hunting
When Cecil, a lion in Zimbabwe, was hunted and killed by an American tourist in 2015, the outcry was heard from conservationists and activists across the world. The idea of this remarkable, sentient being killed within his natural environment by a tourist paying $50,000 was viewed as a tragedy by many Westerners. The event sparked controversy and a push for regulation to ban trophy hunting.
Most people in opposition to Cecil’s death (and trophy hunting in general) are very much removed from the issue itself— not living in Africa or familiar with African culture. Nevertheless, the opinions of Africans were largely ignored by scholars and Western conservationists, despite their perspective being essential for discussing environmental policy changes in their own region. In light of this, a recent study aimed to uncover the African perspective regarding the killing of Cecil and trophy hunting in general. The author analyzed posts from three different Facebook sites with predominantly African followers to understand how beliefs in Africa differ from those in the West, and whether or not they stem from traditional, indigenous philosophy.
Prior to colonization, the author asserts that many Africans held a moral philosophy of “Ubuntu,” which emphasizes community and the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the environment. The cultural norm was to practice care and compassion, where animals were only killed if they were seen as a life threat or for food. Hunting animals for sport would be considered taboo according to Ubuntu belief. When Africa was colonized, the Western colonizers imposed their own conservation ideology, which typically sees humans as separate from and dominant over nature.
Western influence is what gave rise to trophy hunting. According to the author, Africans were made reliant on the economic benefits that Western trophy hunting brought. Now, in the neo-colonial landscape, trophy hunting is exclusive to elite tourists and largely excludes the African people themselves. However, proponents of trophy hunting claim that it brings money to local communities and supports wild animal habitats, and some African scholars question whether returning to conservation methods rooted in Ubuntu would be successful given the continent’s current socio-political context.
Analysis of the social media posts revealed three key themes among African commentators. First, 70% of posts expressed that neo-colonialism is at the heart of the ethical debate over trophy hunting. Some people complained about privileged Westerners exploiting African resources while the African public is largely excluded from such an expensive activity. A few people found it unacceptable that the man who killed Cecil the lion obtained his license in the U.S., rather than buying it from Africa.
On a similar note, 80% of posts expressed resentment that Westerners appear more concerned for animal welfare than the people of Africa, who often suffer from poverty and starvation. They also see Westerners as ignorant of the realities of living among lions, who have been known to kill people. Meanwhile, 60% of commentators felt that the African government is to blame for the controversy surrounding trophy hunting. These people argued that African politicians care more about bribery from trophy hunters than allowing funds to trickle down to local communities. Only a small minority of posts criticized trophy hunting for the sake of the animals themselves. Overall, the study highlights the harms of trophy hunting through a lens of racial tension, colonialism, and economic imbalances.
The author concludes that trophy hunting has only served to escalate tensions between Africa and the West. However, any decision-making on conservation and animal protection in Africa needs to include the Africans themselves. After all, their lives will be the most affected once trophy hunting is banned. Western animal advocates can make a difference by providing support to African stakeholders who want to shift their tourism industry away from trophy hunting. When working with these stakeholders, it’s important not to impose Western views of conservation on the African community. Finally, there needs to be a plan in place to ensure Africans benefit the most from the post-trophy hunting tourism economy.