The lion that broke the Internet: Hard truths about Cecil and our woefully short attention span

Cecil's slaughter had all the makings of an Internet firestorm. But what about cases that aren't as tweet-able?

Published July 31, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Andy Loveridge)
(AP/Andy Loveridge)

If there's one thing I feel certain about regarding the enormous public meltdown surrounding the killing of Cecil the lion, it's that it's been overwhelmingly genuine. Sure, the now infamous event has morphed into a crass excuse for some to further their political positions, and for others to make some (pretty funny) Twitter jokes. But the animal's death, at the hands of Walter Palmer, an American dentist with a crossbow and the willingness to cut a $55,000 check, was brutal and, to most observers, senseless; after posting one small story about the emerging backlash, my inbox was flooded with impassioned emails from people who seemed genuinely heartbroken about the news. A colleague messaged me that she couldn't stop thinking about it; a friend's mom announced that she was taking a temporary break from Facebook -- the amount of awful news the world had to offer had, at last, become too much to handle.

But I've seen the Internet freak out about quite a few things in my day, and so I kept circling back to the question raised by Jared Keller in the Pacific Standard the afternoon that the scandal broke: "Does the Internet really care about Cecil the lion?"

It's a trollish question, to be sure, but it's one I've asked myself. I write, every day, about environmental issues that I consider to be "outrageous," and I can assure you it isn't often that a story filed under "Sustainability" makes it to the top of Salon's most-read list. The amount of attention Cecil is getting is far from usual for a story about endangered species. Yet it hasn't exactly heralded in a new era of awareness. While we were all mourning Cecil,  for example, one of the world's five remaining northern white rhinos died in captivity, meaning the species is now only four lives away from extinction. In Kenya, five endangered elephants were killed by poachers, their tusks hacked off their corpses. And you may have missed it, but Wednesday was International Tiger Day: Wild populations of these other big cats, environmental groups warn, are at an all-time low.

There were elements that I think made Cecil's sad fate capture our hearts where others have failed to. The lion had a name. He was, we are told, beloved, and he was certainly photogenic. The Internet, meanwhile, is primed to despise hunters, and while the news of Cecil's death at the hands of poachers first broke Monday, it was the revelation that his killer walked among us -- and was drilling our teeth, no less -- that truly catapulted the entire affair into a Twitter-busting scandal.

Keller suggested that the Internet outrage would not, aside from likely ruining Walter Palmer's life, have much of an impact. He's been proven both right and wrong about that. A few days later, people are still talking about trophy hunting and the controversial role it plays in conservation, and some are suggesting that the bipartisan public shaming Palmer's receiving may cement game hunting as a socially unacceptable activity. Politicians have joined the conversation -- a New Jersey assemblyman is planning to introduce a bill that would ban the transport of endangered animals' carcasses through Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports -- and the federal government has been impelled to make statements. (For the record, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is "deeply concerned" about Cecil's death; the State Department is "saddened," and refused to comment on whether it was considering extraditing Palmer to Zimbabwe to face prosecution.)

Amid the outcry, hunters insist that they're the ones who truly care about lions. They're the ones, after all, who will pay what sometimes amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to pursue their trophies -- money that, they repeatedly point out, goes back to conservation efforts. That's a mostly bogus argument, said Craig Packer, one of the world's leading lion experts and the author of the forthcoming book "Lions in the Balance: Man-eaters, Manes, and Men With Guns." Trophy hunting raises far less money for conservation than the industry maintains, he said, and as Cecil's saga proves, most hunting areas are poorly managed and rife with corruption. "There are a lot of very cheapo, fly-by-night kinds of outfitters" hosting hunting expeditions, Packer told Salon, "and they're not going to adhere to any kind of rules and regulations."

If you think hunting is reprehensible, of course, it's unlikely that any amount of money or justifications is likely to convince you to feel OK about it. But if some amount of money were to persuade you, Packer said, $55,000 shouldn't cut it. He and his team conducted an analysis, in 2013, that sought to calculate just how much it costs to adequately protect Africa's lions. The figure they arrived at for unfenced reserves like the one from which Cecil was lured: about $2,000 per square kilometer per year. A male lion, like Cecil, wouldn't be "eligible" to be hunted until fully grown, meaning that for at least six years, he would need to be protected. And for each of those years, he'd require an area of at least 50 kilometers in which to live. Add that up, and you're looking at a budget well over half a million dollars -- and that's just for one lion.

"How much does $55,000 sound like now?" Packer asked, adding, "the big lie about hunting in Africa is that it gives value to wildlife."

Anti-hunting hard-liners aren't going to like where he goes next with this. Hunting, Packer believes, does have the potential to contribute positively to conservation. That's because, he explained, there are large areas of unsettled land that aren't suitable to photo tourism, and that have few other means of raising funds aside from letting in hunters. What does that mean for the people wanting to channel their outrage about Cecil's death? "I think the main thing is to try to wake up to the fact that it's incredibly expensive to save animals like lions, that this is a problem that's probably going to take billions of dollars every year for the rest of time," he said. Local people, who face threats to their livestock and their own lives from lions, need more of an incentive to tolerate the predators' presence -- and that's something that's more likely to happen if they're valued around a million dollars, instead of $50,000.

In the absence of a major influx of money, Packer didn't see how online outrage was really going to help the lions out. Or, as he put it: "These guys could give a flying fuck about online petitions."

Are we ready to have an honest conversation about endangered species? About the fact that there are fewer than 30,000 lions left in Africa, or that we managed to destroy half the world's existing wildlife in just 40 years? About the people who are putting their lives on the line to fight poaching? About the less-tweetable issues, like habitat fragmentation and human population growth, that are contributing to their demise, and the hefty, sustained price we'd have to pay to truly protect them? The story doesn't end with Cecil, but I fear attention spans might.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cecil The Lion Conservation Endangered Species Hunting Poaching Trophy Hunting