Does the Internet Really Care About Cecil the Lion? - Pacific Standard

Does the Internet Really Care About Cecil the Lion?

If online outrage is having any effect, it's unclear.
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Cecil the lion. (Photo: YouTube)

Cecil the lion. (Photo: YouTube)

The Internet is furious with Walter Palmer.

Palmer was likely an average American dentist before international news outlets identified him at the hunter believed to have paid $55,000 to hunt and kill Cecil, a beloved Zimbabwe lion popular among tourists and Africans alike, living protected in Hwange National Park.

According to the Guardian, the hunt was plainly illegal: Palmer and a hunter reportedly lured Cecil out of his protected Hwange zone before shooting him with a bow and arrow. Cecil didn’t die for 40 more hours, when a different, Spanish hunter finished the suffering animal off and stripped the carcass of its head and skin—a trophy for the Spanish hunter's return home. According to Mashable, both the head and skin have been confiscated as evidence by the Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force. The landowner who authorized the hunt is currently under arrest.

Animals and outrage are the two core values of a modern Internet built on the infrastructure of social media.

Because we live in an era of digital vigilantism, Palmer is taking a flogging online. News of his identification quickly went viral on Twitter and Facebook, and furious animal lovers are flooding his dental practice's Yelp page with threats (his office was totally shut down on Tuesday, according to BuzzFeed). Other photos of Palmer with his trophies have only increased the feedback loop of vitriol. He’ll likely be the victim of "doxxing," and have his home address and phone numbers leaked across the more anarchic parts of the Internet.

If this story sounds familiar, it should. Animals and outrage are the two core values of a modern Internet built on the infrastructure of social media. In April, 41-year-old mother Rebecca Francis quickly attracted similar digital fury when a photo of her smiling next to a giraffe carcass went viral across Facebook. Last year, 19-year-old Texas cheerleader Kendall Jones found herself in the middle of a digital maelstrom after photos of her cuddling with dead leopards went viral.

Walter Palmer, left, poses with a trophy. (Source: The Telegraph)

Walter Palmer, left, poses with a trophy. (Source: The Telegraph)

The scale and intensity of the outrage over Palmer, Francis, and Jones' viral hunts is completely understandable. The human relationship with large mammals—especially, but not limited to, our domesticated dogs and cats—has always been a mix of alien fascination and human adoration. Philosopher Mark Rowland has referred to this as the "anthropomorphic delusion," our age-old psychological propensity to ascribe human traits like "good" and "loyal" to the animals we share the planet with. With activism and education around preservation on the rise in the United States and beyond, this connection takes on social urgency, articulating those fuzzy moral truths on animal life into a visceral political and, more recently, digital calculus.

But will the uproar translate into action? In an age when a single hashtag can spark a social movement, online vitriol doesn’t appear as effective in deterring hunting, or even in giving organizations the tools to continually protect endangered species and ward off poachers. While the activist organizations' operating revenues have grown at a steady clip since 2010—from $244 to $266 million in the case of the World Wildlife Fund, and $201 to $234 million for the Wildlife Conservation Society—there's no internal financial data publicly available that suggests these instances of online fury morphed into an influx of cash. (The WWF and WCF did not respond to request for comment.)

In an age when a single hashtag can spark a social movement, online vitriol doesn’t appear as effective in deterring hunting, or even in giving organizations the tools to continually protect endangered species and ward off poachers. 

The steady destruction of endangered species continues to outpace both policy and educational solutions. Rhino hunting in South Africa hit record levels in the first four months of 2015. Globally, elephant poaching levels have been steadily increasing since 2002, according to UNEP data, with the center of gravity for seedy wildlife poaching and trafficking gradually shifting from Asia to Africa. Regional instability helps: The rise of the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of Congo has touched off a surge in elephant poaching as hunters take advantage of shaky park administration. Some 75 percent of all African elephant populations are on the decline, according to National Geographic. If online outrage is having any effect, it's unclear.

Admittedly, donations to private organizations like the WWF and WCF aren't a silver bullet for protecting animals. Despite putting a whopping 84 percent of their operating budgets toward programmatic applications, these organizations' funding is spread between multiple grants and programs focused on habitat destruction, deforestation, and carbon emissions as well as animal conservation initiatives; with only a sliver of conservation budgets allocated to warding off poachers, these groups are often unable to disincentivize continued growth in the $200 million-a-year sub-Saharan trophy hunting sector on the grounds of raw humanity.

The news is often filled with high-visibility anti-poaching and hunting efforts: celebrity advocates; new gadgets designed to alert park administrators; a handful of passionate individuals devoting their lives to preserving the planet's natural beauties. But sharing a story with your own angry opinion is, like everything else on social media, a mere exercise in identity formation—a performance designed to reinforce and telegraph out values. If you’re upset about the death of Cecil, here’s an idea: Put Walter Palmer out of your mind and donate some money to a conservation group. The Cecils of the future may thank you.

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