For my first opinion piece, I’d like to discuss the emergence of a new phenomenon that has been gaining notoriety and causing outrage among conservationists and animal activists: The Great White Facebook Huntress. Now, as you may have inferred, this is going to be a highly opinionated and subjective post, as I have no intention of giving the antagonists of this sad saga the benefit of the doubt, or of appeasing those who choose to side with them. Diplomacy may be a necessary tool in politics but, as any Guns n Roses fan will know, “some men you just can’t reach”.
So let’s recap what happened. Last November, American TV presenter Melissa Bachman caused a well-deserved but ultimately ineffective shitstorm after posting a picture of herself next to a lion she shot and killed in a “hunting park”. That’s right people, a hunting park. I don’t know about you, but when I hear “park”, I don’t usually think of the thrill of shooting down a defenseless, oftentimes drugged predator for the sake of adrenaline and bragging rights. Instead, words like “amusement”, “frisbee”, “picnic”, or possibly “beer” come to mind, along with images of Simon & Garfunkel performing to a record audience at Central Park. But I digress. Soon, Facebook feeds all over the world were awash with Ms Bachman’s image, accompanied by petitions asking the South African government to refuse her re-entry into the country. Needless to say, the South African government did no such thing. Trophy hunting, after all, is legal in the country (and many others), ergo Ms Bachman did not break any laws, except perhaps the unwritten law of human decency and humility towards nature.
Fast forward seven months and enter Kendall Jones, a nineteen year old student and cheerleader at Texas Tech university. Again, a series of pictures showing a young woman posing next to a range of dead animals, including a White Rhino, is being posted, shared, and widely commented upon on Facebook and other social media sites. And again, many of these posts include a link to a petition asking Mark Zuckerberg to remover her page from Facebook, or to another one trying to get her banned from hunting in Africa altogether, reminiscent of last year’s anti-Bachman petition. While I fundamentally agree with the underlying sentiment of all these efforts (i.e. she’s a terrible person and, in a perfect world, this should have consequences), I believe that they miss the real point and, ultimately, do nothing to serve the cause of conservation and animal welfare. Firstly, I have a general issue with sites like change.org, which make it too easy for people to channel their initial outrage and anger into something seemingly productive and meaningful without giving proper thought to the campaign they wish to start. Equally, it creates the illusion that activism consists of the mere clicking of the button. That being said, I also take issue with these petitions in particular. As mentioned earlier, big game hunting (including lions, leopards, and even rhinos) continues to be legal in many African countries, including South Africa, so the notion that governments will suddenly start punishing hunters for purchasing hunting permits is beyond ridiculous. It is this very legality which gives these people an excuse for the practise of trophy hunting. The game farm manager who operates the hunting park Ms Bachman was gracing with her presence, for instance, argued that hunting lions cannot be wrong because the government legally gives people permission to do so. This logic is obiously flawed, as laws cannot distinguish between right or wrong, but merely between legal and illegal. “Right” or “wrong” are moral concepts, and morally speaking there is no debating that what Ms Jones and Ms Bachman are doing it categorically wrong. Not because I believe hunting is fundamentally wrong – I do not – but the pictures these two charming ladies have posted suggest that they are driven not by the need for food , clothing, or even population control, but by the desire to exert dominance over another species and use this for self-promotion. In the following picture, you can see Ms Jonas “hugging” a leopard she just killed, grinning from ear to ear.
This is the picture of a woman who enjoys killing for the sake of killing without any respect for the animal, and no excuse or justification she or her supporters might come up with will change this basic fact.
Of course, trophy hunters have their own version of this reality. They actually have the audacity to claim that they are really, deep down, the true champions of conservation. “Hunters are the biggest conservationists out there”, Kendall told the New York Daily News, for they “want animal populations to grow and thrive!”. This is a very common argument which was also used in defense of Ms Bachman. Now I am in no position to comment on how much of the money our trigger-happy friends are spending on their hobby actually gets put into genuine conservation programs. Sick as it may be, their money might very well contribute to conservation in some form, in which case it is difficult to avoid feeling cynicism about the human race. But let’s not kid ourselves: Trophy hunters like these two are not primarily motivated by a genuine concern for wildlife conservation. As established earlier, they are out for the thrill of the kill and for photo-ops to prove their badassness (a new word). True conservationists, on the other hand, are motivated by the deeply held belief that we must respect nature and limit our destructive impact on it. That is not to say all conservationists are opposed to killing animals – population control being one of the tricky issues that need to be dealt with – but they don’t passionately embrace it. It is true that trophy hunters do, in fact, want animal populations to “grow and thrive”. We shouldn’t doubt Ms Jones’ sincerity on this point. But their motivation is drastically different, for they are not interested in conservation for the sake of animals. Without healthy, thriving wildlife populations, they simply wouldn’t be able to engage in the killing they so love, and so it all comes back to their fundamental selfishness, arrogance and vanity. To add further weight to her argument, Ms Jones goes on to claim that “funds from a hunt like this goes partially to the government for permits but also to the farm owner as an incentive to keep and raise lions on their property”. And this is where the “trophy hunters as conservationists” myth finally gets exposed for the lie that it is. Wildlife conservation is about ensuring the survival and well-being of wild populations. Breeding lions on a private farm to make money off their inevitable slaughter has nothing to do with preserving the species. According to The Independent, 4,062 lion carcasses were exported from South Africa in the five years to 2011, the vast majority of which were specifically bred to be killed. Claiming that trophy hunters and hunting park owners are conservationists by investing in lion breeding is like saying eating meat is really all about pig conservation. It’s a cynical and stupid remark that should be exposed as such, rather than accepted as genuine argument in defense of trophy hunting.
So, to conclude, what can be done? For starters, let’s stop with the kneejerky online petitions every time something like this happens. People like Melissa Bachman or Kendall Jones are looking for publicity, so let’s not give it to them. By making ridiculous and unrealistic demands, conservationists and animal activists are doing their cause no favour, as it makes them vulnerable to attacks and ridicule. Instead, support campaigns that aim to outlaw canned hunting. The Campaign Against Canned Hunting organizes a global march for lions held in many cities throughout the world, certainly something that is more promising than expecting the South African government to punish people for doing something they actively encourage. Secondly, and this is a long term wish I don’t think will come true in our lifetime, let’s stop viewing hunting as a sport, shall we? Apparently, the attention she’s received has landed Ms Jones an upcoming TV show on the Sportsman Channel, which will undoubtedly bring in lots of money she can then give to African governments who refuse to protect their countries’ natural heritage. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that can only be broken by a concerned effort directed at the problem’s root cause, the legality of trophy hunting and the general ignorance of the voting public against a well-funded and outspoken hunting lobby.