Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion: What motivates a trophy hunter?

The internet is once again blowing up with a new controversy, in this case the apparently illegal killing of a lion in Zimbabwe by an American dentist named Walter Palmer from Minnesota. Canned lion hunting is unfortunately neither new nor rare, but this particular gentleman had the misfortune of putting an end to an animal that was both part of an Oxford University study and rather well known locally.

As a result he’s been the subject of rather more media attention than expected and once again brought the issue of trophy hunting to the fore. It doesn’t help that this particular dentist has been in trouble before: a conviction for illegally killing a black bear.

There are many reasons why the feelings of strong revulsion for what happened are both irrational and at the same time completely understandable. I’m not going to go into them here, but there’s a very nice article on the subject over at ThinkProgress that has a brief but interesting look at the psychology at play there.

What most people seem to be struggling with (and what I’ll address here) is the mindset of hunters who are not killing to eat, but for sport. Of course many hunters like the one in question here claim that what they do actually helps overall conservation and that’s actually true. Conservationists have realised that some people will pay obscene amounts of money to have the opportunity to kill iconic animals for trophies, and trade off the greater good that money will do for the rest of the wildlife on that stretch of land. If trophy hunter were motivated purely by a desire to help nature conservation, why not just donate the money without the hunt? If they were interested in culling overpopulated species they would help with that and not take a trophy. These rationalizations don’t explain why the trophy itself is so important.

Trophies are symbols to which we attribute meaning. They are a signal to others about who we are. They may symbolize social status or stand for some sort of culturally valuable attribute such as “toughness”. One should also not underestimate the potent power of scarcity. It is one of the prime factors that persuade people to act. If you combine a trophy that symbolizes a value that is culturally valuable and combine it with extreme rarity that’s a mega-motivator. If social status is something you require to validate your existence, dropping thousands of Dollars on an experience only a very small elite will ever have can be like just one more hit of heroin.

Epistemology and ontology are also important factors. Religious beliefs, for example, can moderate how people interact with nature. For example some forms of Christianity interpret the “dominion” over animals as a free pass, while some Eastern religions make adherents act in a very reverent way. As with the literally holy cows of India.

There are many questions about ethics, rationality and cultural values this highly publicized case has brought to the fore, but in between all the outrage we cannot forget to include the inner motivational world of people like Walter Palmer and try to understand their point of view. Empathizing is not the same as condoning someone’s actions, but it is an important step towards understanding them.

Cecil’s death has motivated thousands of people to donate to the Oxford University conservation project, if you want to contribute head to http://wildcru.org/support-us/

By Jennifer Haygate