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To Preserve or Conserve? Trophy Hunting in Southern Africa

Reflections on Cecil the Lion

Written by Katherine North (Bachelor of African and Film Studies, Carleton University).
Nominated by Professor A. Diptee

Screenshot from article published by Daily Beast on July 28, 2015. See "The Animal Serial Killer Who Shot Cecil The Lion."

Screenshot from article published by Daily Beast on July 28, 2015. See “The Animal Serial Killer Who Shot Cecil The Lion.”

On a Saturday evening in Manhattan this past August, a publicity stunt of grand proportions took place upon the iconic facade of the Empire State Building. There, taking up at least the top fifty stories, an onlooker could see a giant-sized photograph of Cecil the Lion gazing back at the crowd of at least twenty blocks. This picture was part of a projection show dedicated to the upcoming premiere of Louie Psihoyos’ new documentary about endangered wildlife titled, “Racing Extinction”1. While lions are not technically endangered, (they are currently considered vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)2), this beacon of light on the New York City skyline represented an intersection in the argument over wildlife management which has spanned the past two hundred years: to preserve, or to conserve?

At one end of this spectrum the show represented an emotional tribute, leading onlookers to mourn the death of a beautiful creature. What many may not realize however, is that by mourning Cecil’s death it situates them at one end of the spectrum which believes that animals should be kept alive based on their intrinsic value.3 This perspective aligns with the ‘preservation’ discourse, one that shames the idea of human interference with animals, one that Adams and Hulme equate to, “‘fortress conservation’, the ‘fences and fines approach’.”4 It is this discourse which believes wildlife should be separated from humans by a barrier that protects them from violence and corruption.

At the same time, this show, titled, “Projecting Change,” attempted to send the message that the endangered species illuminating the Empire State Building that evening will soon become extinct unless something is done. The film’s tagline gravely states, “winning is the only option”5 in the effort to save the Earth’s animals and the movie poster prominently features an Elephant and Rhinoceros -two animals which have long been synonymous with images of Africa. While the film plans to urge viewers to “#Startwith1thing” in an effort to rescue animals, (which could be anything from restricting water use to becoming a vegetarian) there is perhaps an ignored reality going on with this message: something has been done, not only in many parts of Africa, but especially in Zimbabwe (Cecil’s home) for decades, and it is known as ‘conservation’. Furthermore, it has been long-established that conservation and protection of animals must coincide with improving people’s livelihoods; trophy hunting, while embodying a long history of colonial ideology and exploitation, has become an integral part of this effort. Therein, while “Projecting Change” represented conflicting ideologies, of which the media detailed both sides when responding to Cecil’s death, media outlets failed to take into consideration what his death truly represented. By highlighting the emotional responses of the international community and ‘preservation’ ideology, they neglected to take into account the exclusionary and segregated history that ‘preservation’ represents in southern Africa. By then highlighting the opposing responses in the media to this ideology, which represented pro-trophy hunting ‘conservation’ efforts, the media failed to address the depoliticizing nature of these responses. By skimming over the major offense committed by Dr. Walter Palmer and urging observers to see trophy hunting as a positive force, these outlets ignored the fact that Cecil’s death represents a broken system in community conservation. Media outlets would have done better to acknowledge the history of both preservation and conservation in southern Africa and consider the impact the actions of a single white male from the United States will have on the communities surrounding Hwange National Park.


1.  Van Cott, Kaeli. “‘The Cove’ Director Made Endangered Animals and Cecil the Lion Come to Life on the Empire State Building.” Indiewire.

2. “The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.” Red List.

3.  Adams, William, and David Hulme. “Conservation and Community: Changing Narratives, Policies and Practices in African Conservation.” African Wildlife & Livelihoods: The Promise and Performance of Community Conservation, p. 14

4. Adams, William, and David Hulme. “Conservation and Community: Changing Narratives, Policies and Practices in African Conservation,” p. 10

5.  “The Film.” Racing Extinction. Oceanic Preservation Society.

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