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Cecil the martyr

Sonya Angelica DiehnJuly 30, 2015

The killing of a well-known wild lion in Zimbabwe by a US dentist and amateur trophy hunter has spread rapidly on the Internet and sparked the public's ire. But can this have any lasting impact?

An Asian lion looking at the camera (Photo: NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Seelam

Cecil the lion is dead.

When I first heard the news - on Tuesday - I thought: Another rare and beautiful animal, killed for no good reason.

There was a smattering of news about it. And then, the floodgates really opened. I watched as the topic went viral: first on Twitter and Facebook, then across other media. The story was suddenly everywhere - and everyone seemed to have an opinion about it.

And I thought to myself: So now suddenly everybody cares about lions? The news that 10 lions died the week before during monsoon flooding in India's Gujarat didn't make the headlines. Since there are only around 500 Asiatic lions left in the world, that's a big hit.

But the Cecil story, of course, is much more palatable than some abstract, deadly weather pattern that may or may not have to do with climate change.

Cecil, it turns out, was something of a wildlife celebrity. He had strutted his stuff in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, showing off his pride for safari-goers and researchers, for 13 years.

Lion in Africa
Perhaps people care too little about the intrinsic value of all that is wild and freeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Anka Agency International

The rest of the story unfolded gradually. First, he went missing. Then, his skinned and decapitated body was recovered - just outside the national park boundaries.

But the whole world seemed to sit up and pay attention when it emerged that a dentist from Minnesota had paid $55,000 to hunt Cecil down as a trophy.

It's alleged that with the assistance of two local guides, the American lured Cecil away from the park - where it would have been illegal to kill him - to first wound the big cat with a bow and arrow, then finish him off nearly two days later with a gun.

Horrific killing, suspicious circumstances, greed and hubris - it has the makings of a riveting murder mystery. But it seems the twist that money was involved, along with an apparent power struggle between the global North and the global South, have "made the story."

Yet like all other viral news, this will gradually fade from the public eye.

Hunting and poaching, however, will not fade away. In fact, poaching on a global scale is growing, placing entire species at risk of extinction. Like some say: Extinction is forever.

But the fact is, hunting and poaching are big business. Trophy hunting is a multi-million-dollar racket, operating in the grey shadow between state-sponsored permits and illegal smuggling. And poaching, though often conceived of as a crime of the poor, is usually perpetrated by large and extremely well-armed organized crime networks.

Poaching fulfills demand for animals and animal parts, often in parts of the world very far from the last shreds of wild habitat on Earth whence the animals came.

The result of both, however, is the same: The death of innumerable wild creatures - great and small - for human entertainment or some subjectively perceived benefit.

Cecil's killing has shined a spotlight on how disgusting this can be.

But will it matter?

Poaching continues to be driven by demand - and so, until the people who want to do things like use rhino horns to try and get an erection finally realize that's a big waste, the illegal wildlife trade will continue.

Environment Team Leader Sonya Angelica Diehn at DW
Sonya Angelica Diehn heads DW's environment deskImage: DW/M. Müller

Aside from education, legislation can be an effective tool against poaching - if it is enforced. Unfortunately - as is the case so often with environmental crimes - the political will to pass and implement laws against poaching and illegal hunting is lacking.

Cecil's death could result in a push to tighten these laws. Public awareness of the problem of poaching and illegal hunting, aside from having an educational effect, is also an important element in generating the public pressure that can stimulate political will.

So, in one sense, the fact that this happened and has gained so much attention is a good thing. In death, Cecil can continue his celebrity status as something of a trophy hunting martyr.

But if we just continue to be a bunch of hypocrites who only care about lions when some rich dentist shoots a famous one to hang on his wall, Cecil's death will have been in vain.