Fair Game?

By now, there can be few people who have not heard of Cecil the Lion. His hunting and killing were reported worldwide. In a short space of time, the Amercian dentist who’d paid for the opportunity to track and shoot this aging beast had his name reduced to swill. And then the online onslaught kicked in. His dental practice closed. He took to the hills. As many media reported, the hunter became the hunted. A phenomenon of our modern, instant communication age. Or is it?

I was fortunate enough to go on a short safari in April. My first. I had no preconceived ideas as to what to expect. Animals, yes. But little else. I was blown away by the experience. We saw ‘the big five’ in their natural habitat. The lions were awesome in the true sense of the overused word.

On our return to the UK, my eldest daughter (just 9) read an article in First News about endangered animals. She decided she wanted to ‘do something’ to help raise money and awareness so, as nine year olds do, she wrote to HM The Queen. ‘The Queen’ replied and suggested my daughter make contact with WWF as the charity and organisation best placed to help. She also wrote letters to the Minister and our local MP. She got replies saying much the same thing. And so she is now doing a sponsored cycle ride in a bid to help.

All of this was pre-Cecil … but it was more than 80 years after Huberta.

“Who?” I hear you ask?

Huberta was a hippo, thought to have been born in 1928 on South Africa’s Zululand coast. She made the news because, unlike other hippos, she liked to wander. By her journey’s end, she had traveled well over a thousand miles. The media of the day reported her progress – she was a celebrity in her own right. The government gave her royal protection. Various tribes claimed her as their own – reincarnated Chiefs born to protect the poor.

When Huberta was shot dead, it caused an outcry. Questions were asked in Parliament. Flags were flown at half mast. Newspapers reported that she had been “assassinated”. Four Afrikaner farmers were charged and found guilty. When passing sentence, the judge said that, if he had listened to public opinion, he would have passed the death sentence. The maximum he could impose was a ??25 fine and 3 months hard labour. And that is what each man received.

Huberta’s journey was not quite at an end: through public subscription, her transportation to London was paid and she was duly mounted. On her return – to Durban Museum – 20,000 people came to see her … in just four weeks. A nation mourned.

I’d love to claim that I researched all this myself. I didn’t. It just so happens that I picked up a wonderful book (Somewhere Over The Rainbow) by Gavin Bell. I was intrigued to read his thoughts on South Africa, written when he’d visited in 2000 – and how his view of the country may differ from mine after a visit 15 years on. Uncannily similar in many ways – and this one passage gripped me as I read it on the day Cecil’s story broke:

The other big predator in the private reserves around Kruger is man. Grant (Gavin’s guide) said conservation was expensive, and the smaller game parks would struggle to survive on tourism. Foreigners were willing to pay big money for game trophies, so they were sold permits to shoot old animals. The proceeds were used to repair fences, employ game wardens, dig water holes and maintain buildings and machinery. Grant said: ‘If we’ve got an old lion that’s likely to die or be killed in a few months, we figure it’s better to get for him from a trophy hunter that we can use to protect the next generation.

Bell’s summing up is that such a take ‘seemed reasonable’ – albeit he condemns the ‘Neanderthals with high powered rifles who risk little more than getting blood on their boots from the carcass’.

In 2000, Cecil was not yet born. In 1928, his ancestors would have been just as hunted – if not more so. The outcry is amplified in today’s global media frenzy. But the human sentiment behind the outrage is the same. It is what makes us human.

My daughter’s bike ride won’t make the headlines. It is one small person’s bid to make a positive difference. Perhaps we need more such spokespeople who are genuinely impassioned and prepared to pedal the stories to make a change? For all the celebrity outrage, the Twitter storm and TV headlines, unless folk do something, it is just noise … and Cecil will shuffle off to join Huberta in the history books.

If we simply shout and jump aboard the next social media wave, I think I can just about hear Cecil and Huberta. Unsurprisingly, they are telling us all to get stuffed.


This Blog was first published on Huffington Post

23/08/2015 14:36 BST | Updated 23/08/2016 06:59 BST