The Privileged Playground: Tourism, Conservation and Money Money Money!

Maybe this post is too late to be topical and too early to be retrospective but…

The death of Cecil the Lion briefly set the internet ablaze last summer. On July 1, 2015, after two local hunting guides lured Cecil from his usual territory in protected Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, American dentist Walter Palmer wounded Cecil with an arrow, “tracked” him and finished him with a rifle. Many sources report that 40 hours passed between Cecil’s wounding and eventual death. (Palmer, of course, denies the rifle and 40-hour timeframe.) Backlash ensued.

Cecil_the_lion_at_Hwange_National_Park_(4516560206)
“Cecil the Lion at Hwange National Park in 2010” (source: Wikimedia.org)

The two hunting guides have been charged with “failing to prevent an unlawful hunt” and face a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted. Palmer, who reportedly paid $50,000 for the guided hunt, was not prosecuted. In fact, Zimbabwe would welcome him back. Oppah Muchinguri, the Zimbabwean Minister of Environment, Water and Climate, has told reporters, “He [Palmer] is free to come, not for hunting, but as a tourist.”

As reported by Zimbabwe’s Daily News, Zimbabwean First Lady Grace Mugabe went so far as to say, “I believe when he [Palmer] killed this animal, he didn’t know. The people to blame are the Zimbabweans who are greedy for money, who made the white man kill that animal.”

Wait, who made the white man kill that animal? 

I would never argue that hunting at its essence is wrong. But trophy hunting is. There was no sense to Cecil’s death, no need. Palmer and his family would neither be fed nor clothed by slaying the lion. It was an act of gluttony. Cecil was killed because some wealthy, self-entitled white guy had $50,000 to blow and wanted to kill. The end.

Maybe Palmer hoped to mount Cecil’s head on a wall or lay the hide across his parlor floor so that he could brag, “I killed that lion with a perfectly calibrated, many-thousand-dollar, high-powered rifle. To think, if we hadn’t outnumbered it and had weapons and the Jeep to get away, the lion’s teeth might’ve evened things out a bit.” Whatever Palmer’s undoubtedly genius reason for killing Cecil may be, what is happening to the two hunting guides — what is not happening to Palmer — hints at a greater issue than the death of a lion.

As exemplified in popular reality television programming, westerners seem to view the planet as a playground for the privileged. Take the Amazing Race on which American duos compete for a million dollars by scurrying across real-life locations, hustling locals and barking at taxi drivers along the way. Now, some may argue that the contestants on the Amazing Race are regular Joes and Janes and not at all privileged. However, being given the opportunity to compete for a million dollars and, while doing so, travel (with a stipend for expenses) to exotic locales that are monetarily out of reach for most denizens of the world is not some unalienable right. Nor is it an opportunity that these contestants earned over other would-be contestants. It is an opportunity granted by CBS, a wealthy corporation based in a powerful country. It is a privilege.

A recent season ended when a couple from the Bronx (who had dominated the entire race) refused to tip their taxi driver yet expected the driver to wait patiently (meanwhile earning no fare) while they completed some task before heading to the next checkpoint. The driver, understandably, departed and the previously dominant couple was passed-by. Another couple, still in the competition at the final leg of the race, lost because they could not remember the flag of Africa. (No joke.) One of the final tasks in the competition was to place the flags of each country they had visited in the order in which they had visited the countries. The couple kept repeating, “Which one’s the African flag. I can’t remember the flag of Africa.” A third team, who tipped their driver and knew that Africa is a continent and not a country under a single flag, won the race and the loot. There’s a lesson in that.

I’m torn because, compared to television’s myriad broadcasts primarily amounting to absolute garbage, the Amazing Race is a pretty good show. It introduces aspects of other cultures to an American viewership, which is prone to being culturally introspective and self-aggrandizing. (The popular example: We call our professional sports champions “World Champions” despite the lack of international participation. This sort of jingoism is especially embarrassing when you consider that the MLB calls its championship the “World Series” though the US only won 4 gold medals at the Baseball World Cup — in comparison, Cuba won 25 gold medals — and a total of 0 medals so far at the World Baseball Classic.) But on the Amazing Race, Americans often represent our culture poorly by being loud, pushy and unreasonably demanding of locals (especially taxi drivers).

The justification for American tourists treating locals as in-the-way foreigners: “It’s a million dollars!” There it is. You’ll hear every season on the Amazing Race. Granted, most contestants are humbled by the experience and the show’s editors do a great job at vilifying those who aren’t. Still, it seems that, for many (and more than enough to spoil it for the rest of us) money — money that won’t be shared with bullied and objectified locals — justifies all manner of sin.

Back to Cecil. The tragedy of Cecil the Lion is rooted in this practice of the privileged treating the world like a personal playground without regard for spirit, heritage, or life. Trophy hunting and rare-species trafficking are billion-dollar industries through which a lot of money goes from the wealthy to the impoverished, destitute, and dispossessed. Yet, Cecil was his own creature. His life was not the guides’ to sell nor the hunter’s to buy. There are better ways to do business and, when the ends cannot justify the means (the loss of life for the sake of ego and gluttony), some business should never be done at all.

First Lady Mugabe thinks Palmer was unaware of the law, but if the hunt was truly “unlawful” as the charges against the guides suggest, the responsibility of knowing the law and acting within the boundaries of the law also falls upon the tourist. It’s not too much to ask that a tourist do a little research on his/her $50,000 vacation investment. Nor is it a leap to assume that Palmer, a highly educated and successful businessman who heads his own practice, did do his research and knew just what his $50,000 was paying for.

So, why isn’t Palmer being held equally responsible for participating in this alleged “unlawful hunt”? Why is he given the benefit of the doubt while the guides are scapegoated? I’m afraid I already know the answer.

Conservation benefits all and every living thing regardless of race or socio-economic status, even regardless of species. Though there is play to be had, the world is not a playground solely for the privileged. It is everyone’s playground and home and office and schoolhouse and kitchen and heritage and future. Earth is everyone’s everything. For now and in the foreseeable future, Earth is the only world we got and, while we’re here, we might as well act neighborly and respectful toward one and all.

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