It’s been about two weeks since the opinion war on Melissa Bach’s lion hunt broke out all over the internet. Now that tempers on both sides of the debate have cooled down somewhat, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on the whole thing.
Firstly, anyone who knows me personally will know that I have a huge soft spot for animals. I always have, since I was a little child – so obviously this will colour my argument a tad. I will, however, attempt to maintain objectivity throughout this piece. I grew up in a house full of cats and dogs, had rats and hamsters as pets, and also spent a lot of time around a flock of semi-tame chickens (one or two of which were hand-reared and fully tame and, I might add, quite delightful and intelligent little creatures with unique personalities) at my grandmother’s house.
It may surprise some of you to learn that I have killed animals with a gun as well. You see, having a number of free-roaming cats in a garden full of bird life, lizards and rodents meant that there was a lot of hunting going on on the part of my feline friends. Now, cats are affectionate creatures (despite what ignorant people believe about them) and in return for you feeding them, they will also bring food to share with you. This meant that a lot of dead lizards, birds and rats and shrews were brought into our house by our cats. Well, some were dead, and some were badly wounded. A lesson I learned early on from my father was that sometimes killing is a necessary evil. I remember one of our cats bringing in a mouse from the garden one afternoon. I was perhaps six or seven years old. I still remember how the little creature lay on the cold linoleum of the kitchen floor, spattered with blood, with patches of its fur matted and thick with the cat’s saliva. It was panting in great, heaving gasps. Flecks of blood clung to its tiny, yellowed rodent incisors. Its beady black eyes were bulging with raw terror.
“It’ll be okay, won’t it dad?” I asked my father.
He looked down at the little creature and shook his head sadly.
“It won’t, Jonny.”
“But… can’t we just put it back in the garden? It’ll get better, right?”
“I’m sorry my boy. It’s dying. It’ll be kinder to put it out of its misery. Take it out to the garden while I get the pellet gun.”
Using a paper towel, I gingerly scooped up the tiny creature. It did not struggle, nor did it try to escape. I could feel its heartbeat through the paper, and the warmth of its body melded with the heat of my cupped hands around it. I understood then that this thing was like me, in a way – in that it was not just a thing. It was an entity with its own will, with its own consciousness, with its own desire to live, to exist in peace. Nonetheless, I was powerless to help it. I did as I was told and took it out to the back garden and lay it down near the drain from the kitchen.
My father came out a few moments later with his pellet gun. He loaded the weapon with a lead pellet, placed the muzzle of the gun against the mouse’s skull, and pulled the trigger.
Blood, shattered bits of skull and globs of brain sprayed out in all directions, scattered by the pellet’s violent velocity. The mouse’s legs curled up into its body and it released a final breath of air from its lungs.
Death, I suppose, came as a release and a final comfort to the creature. But it was ugly. It was tragic. I cried my eyes out and was inconsolable for quite some time after that. Most children have a naïve wonder and fascination for animals, from great to small, and seeing violence wrought upon an animal causes immense distress to the young mind. Unless, of course, that young mind is hardened to it and taught that violence is right, necessary and indeed desirable and worthy of praise.
When I became an adult, the responsibility to put the occasional animal out of its misery (at the hands of our cats) would sometimes be mine. I put pellets through the skulls of a handful of dying birds and rodents that had been mangled at the hands (paws and jaws) of our cats, to give them the mercy of a quick death rather than a slow, lingering and painful one. It never became any easier over the years – death by violence remained an ugly and traumatic experience. The point of mentioning this is to emphasise that along with my love for animals, I also have firsthand experience of killing them with guns. Now let’s get on to the subject of the internet opinion war started by Melissa Bach’s lion hunting pictures.
First there were the knee-jerk, reactionary cries of outrage and disgust at Bach’s picture – her gloating smile as she stood over the corpse of the once-majestic beast. The cries of rage and hate and revulsion spread with the fury of a winter bushfire across all manner of social networks came from the Knee-jerk Reactionaries. In spite of what critics who came to the debate later would say, such reactions are understandable – despite the bubbles of willful ignorance that most of us surround ourselves with, it is hard not to be aware of the fact that most species of wildlife on the planet are endangered, and to see someone with a gloating smile posing next to a majestic beast that she killed for nothing but the pure pleasure of the act of violence, especially when we know of the declining numbers of these wild animals, will stir up a negative reaction in anyone who possesses even the slightest bit of empathy for other living creatures.
After a few days of outrage, the counter-attacks began to arrive – posts from The Smug. We see The Smug in all manner of internet debates and social media phenomena. The Knee-jerk Reactionaries and The Smug are mortal enemies in the realm of the ‘web; the KR post immediate gut reactions, which are usually of an extreme variety, leading to TS getting annoyed with the volume of posting, and thus posting their own “carefully-thought-out” case which (supposedly) completely refutes and nullifies the position of the KR. I put “carefully-thought-out” in inverted commas because it is seldom actually the case that their arguments are carefully-though-out. Often they contain massive holes and are just as incomplete and unconvincing as the KR’s positions, yet they are posited in a manner that can only be described as smug (hence the moniker I have assigned them).
In this particular case, The Smug reaction has been something along the lines of “listen, you bleedin’ heart ignoramuses, you know absolutely nothing about the reality of hunting and conservation, so here are a number of figures and statistics that show that without trophy hunting, most wild animals would quickly become extinct, there would be widespread habitat destruction, millions of rural Africans would starve to death in abject poverty and entire countries’ economies would collapse. Oh, and you buy meat from the supermarket so you’re just as guilty as Bach of cruelty to animals. So leave these noble hunters and these pious and humble game ranchers alone – you may not like what they do but they are the actual knights-in-shining-armour of wildlife conservation.”
Needless to say this position is just as shaky as that of the Knee-jerkers. About the only thing I can agree with in that statement is the notion regarding buying meat from supermarkets, but that is a topic for another debate.
Now how can you call this position “shaky”, I hear you ask. “These guys have got the facts and figures to back them up! It’s clear, from statistics (and the unshakeable faith in which we have in these numbers), that the wild would destroy itself if it weren’t for the benevolent care of hunting ranches and the gargantuan wallets of the foreign hunters who patronise them. Here are the figures detailing elephant and lion populations in South Africa from the 1960s, when hunting had been severely restricted, compared to now, when X population is thriving and this much land is in perfect balance solely because of legalised hunting and population control, etc etc.”
Fine. We can agree that in a way, trophy hunting has contributed enormously to conservation in the past few decades. But before that – why were populations of most major wild mammals in South Africa nearing the brink of extinction by 1960? Because they had been hunted to damn near extinction by sport and trophy hunters. Have we so quickly forgotten the quagga? The Cape Lion? The Blue Buck? These were all hunted to extinction in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a pattern that we have seen repeated throughout history, all over the world. What happened to the United Kingdom’s wolves and bears? They were hunted to extinction on that grey isle. What of the once-vast herds of bison that once roamed the plains of North America, that were almost utterly wiped out by sport hunters? Now, don’t think that I am laying the blame for this squarely at the feet of trophy hunters – farming, deforestation and general destruction of wild habitat for the purpose of expanding human settlements, agriculture and industry has probably been the major cause of the extinction of megafauna over the past few centuries and has pushed certain species into critically endangered status – tigers, clouded leopards, orangutans and rhinoceroses in East and Southeast Asia are some examples that spring immediately to mind. However, let us not forget that in terms of wildlife in South Africa, the very people who The Smug currently wishes to portray as the benevolent saviours of wildlife were the ones who almost brought about the complete annihilation of many species that are currently endangered – for the mere pleasure of using firearms to kill things.
While I never hunted anything myself, I do know of the savage thrill of seeing a bullet you fired wreaking destruction upon a target; I participated in rifle shooting at school for a few years, and at home there was always a pellet gun or two lying around. My brother, my neighbourhood friends and myself used to take violent delight in shooting out streetlights or damaging various items of the neighbours’ property with these air rifles. In our back yard workshops we also constructed muskets powered by firecrackers, which shot marbles at a potentially lethal velocity, and for a time we used a cannon we had made that fired golf balls at enough of a velocity to punch through a few millimetres of steel. Having, at the mere squeeze of one’s finger, the power to cause the same damage as that done by a Viking warrior swinging a battleaxe at full force is a dangerously addictive sensation. Yet for me, for all of us in our group of friends in fact, using these weapons on a living being was a line that was not to be crossed, indeed, it was one that none of us could fathom crossing. However, I knew boys at school who did take a delight in killing an maiming creatures with their pellet guns. I still remember a boy telling a group of us, and laughing about the whole act, of how he had shot a tree agama (a type of large, tree-dwelling lizard) to death in as slow and a cruel a manner as he could (shooting off the limbs one by one, etc). Just hearing him gloat with pride about such vile cruelty made me very sad, and disgusted, even at that young age (I think we were around 9 years old). Another boy I knew was taken on hunts with real firearms from an early age by his father, and he used to proudly boast of the cruelty he inflicted on animals with his father’s guns (like the other boy I mentioned, this one also seemed to take vicious delight in maiming the animals and blowing their body parts off and seeing them suffer a long and painful death). In light of these tales, I never forgot the killing of that mouse – how a being that was once alive, a being that once experienced consciousness via the same conduits that I did (the five senses), and which possessed that same mammalian brain that I possessed with which to interpret the data fed to it via those senses – how that being’s existence and consciousness was ended with the ugliness and brutality of violence.
For another extremely important lesson was taught to me, by my grandmothers and my parents – “do unto others as you would have done unto you”. For us, in our family, the definition of others did not exclude the citizens of the animal kingdom, and this was something that stuck with me from the time I was very young, and something which I have never forgotten. Thus, I could not (and still cannot) fathom wherein lies the pleasure in wreaking violence upon another living being – I see too much of myself, my friends, and my family in the eyes of another living entity to do it unnecessary harm. And I think that killing a creature purely for the sake of sport and entertainment certainly constitutes “unnecessary harm”. However, I don’t want to get into the moral debate about killing for sport, pleasure, convenience or food right now – I’m already going off on a tangent here.
To return to the hunting-as-conservation argument,one only has to look at the pages of any history book about pre-20th century South Africa to find endless accounts of a vast country, teeming with life– both flora and fauna – life that existed in a perfect ecological balance, as it had for millennia. All of the megafauna that once thrived in this country, indeed, on this continent and others, had existed there in a yin-yang harmony for far longer than our species has existed upon this earth. With all these statistics being bandied about regarding the devastation of landscapes by the “uncontrollable excesses” of elephant herds or lions “overhunting” certain species of antelope and putting their population numbers at risk, one has to wonder how these creatures managed to, you know, not cause each other (and the plants and trees too) to go extinct in the millions of years that they roamed free on this continent (and other continents), while we were still in the half-monkey stage of evolution (and thus couldn’t manage the wilds)… How did they get by without destroying everything?! Now, when he/she realises the direction I’m taking with this line of thought, I’m sure some smart-arse is going to point out the mass extinctions that have occurred without the hand of humanity being involved, long before we were walking upright. “Can you say d-i-n-o-s-a-u-r-s, Jon?” Yes I can, and I hope, for your sake, that that’s not your trump card – because a mass extinction is occurring in our epoch – the epoch of civilisation – at a rate that is between ten and one hundred times faster than has ever before happened in our planet’s history, according to some theorists. The dinosaurs were wiped out in a once-off cataclysmic event – an enormous meteor strike, the most popular theory states. Yet here we are – doing just as lethal a job (perhaps at not quite as fast a rate, but close) as the enormous meteorite that erased the existence of those reptilian behemoths from this planet.
This period of greatly accelerated extinction which we are part of, The Holocene, started roughly 10 or 11 000 years ago (and coincided with the proliferation of humans and the beginnings of human civilisation) and is the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s known history. A number of theories abound regarding the cause of the first wave of extinctions (at the start of the Holocene) and many are to do with the role played by climate change – but others also posit that the arrival of humans, with their settlements, spears and arrows, coincides quite clearly with the disappearance of megafauna such as the woolly mammoth, cave lions, cave bears and other megafauna. The second wave of mass extinctions in the Holocene has occurred in the past few centuries and is absolutely and undeniably anthropogenic.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the argument that commercial trophy hunting is what is keeping conservation in South Africa (and on other places) afloat and that without it, we’d lose countless species and usher in mass unemployment and colossal ecological damage, is sympotamic of a greater problem – our attitude towards nature. As can clearly be seen when we look at the greater context of the Holocene Extinction and the last 10 000 years of human impact upon the natural world, we have been, on the whole, takers and not givers. Our attitude is wherein the core of the problem lies; the whole hunting-as-conservation thing is working because of the money involved – because the bottom line, as it has been for a long time, is profit, profit, profit. We see the wilds as a resource, as something that is there with the sole purpose of benefiting us in some way. There is no notion of “perhaps we’ve taken enough from the wilds… Perhaps we should let them return to the state of harmony they had existed in for the millions of years before our intervention in their functioning”. The prevalent thought is this: “here is some land. It must be used to generate profit in some manner. Agriculture? This land is not suitable… But we must have economic growth! Wild animals? How can we most profitably use them – through charging tourists a handful of change to take photographs of them, or by charging tourists suitcases full of hundred dollar bills to kill them and then take photographs of them?” It is easy to see which is the more profitable venture. But even if it is working in the short term (and the short term can be anything from a few decades to a century), it is merely putting a band-aid on a great festering wound that lies beneath. And like an infected wound, if you merely mask it and do not treat the underlying infection, the infection will continue to spread and increase in severity until it kills the organism – even if you cannot see this corruption happening beneath the screen of the band-aid.
We are very quick to point out that overseas tourists who arrive in South Africa with suitcases full of money with which to pay to kill a wild animal for fun in an enterprise that employs hundreds of impoverished individuals, and that it works very favorably in an economic sense. Yet we are reluctant to ask why this should be the case, why this paradigm is dominant. Why is it that we live in a world where a tiny minority of people are so overflowing with material wealth that they can travel to distant lands on a whim and pay huge sums of money to kill something for the mere pleasure of inflicting violence (to kill one lion apparently costs in the region of US$30, 000 – which is way more money than any of those working class individuals who do the tracking and chasing of the animals would ever see or accumulate in their entire lives) yet a majority struggle to simply put food on the table for their families from day to day? Why is it such a given that absolutely every square inch of land has to be seen in terms of what we can take from it, how it can generate profit? It should be obvious to any student of history and ecology, indeed, to any reasonably minded and compassionate individual, that the infinite growth economic paradigm which rules the global economy is utterly unsustainable on a planet of finite resources, and that promoting such wasteful activities as killing for pleasure, regardless of how economically successful they are is bringing the wilds and indeed the entire planet, whether we are talking of inhabited and developed spaces or not, to the brink of destruction.
I realise that I’ve probably raised more questions than provided solutions here, but I don’t believe that people often look at the whole debate in this light. We need to look beyond the simplest parameters and parties involved and try to assess such activity in the light of developing attitudes of compassion, empathy and long-term sustainability. Promoting activities that are inherently violent and destructive for reasons of economic success is, as I mentioned before, merely putting a band-aid over a festering infected wound that will kill its host off completely if left untreated. We need an entirely new system, a completely fresh paradigm – one that is no longer constructed on elevating base sensory pleasures and consumption and taking, taking, taking from the natural world. Without such a vision, there will be nothing but more mass extinctions, enormous habitat destruction and ultimate destruction of most megafauna (our own species included) upon this planet..