Why Did Walter Palmer Kill Cecil The Lion? The Animal's Death Is Symptomatic Of A Systematic Trophy Hunting Crisis

During the first week of July, American citizen Walter Palmer hunted and killed Cecil, one of Africa's most famous lions, and certainly the most famous animal in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. A dentist from Minnesota, Palmer is believed to have paid more than $50,000 for the chance to kill a lion. Ultimately, he left the 13-year-old Cecil skinned and headless on the outskirts of the park. The question on everyone's minds now, as they mourn the death of this beloved lion (and virtually attack Palmer), is "Why?"

It is no secret that Palmer loves to hunt. A 2009 New York Times article described his skill with a bow, and mentions that he learned to shoot when he was just five years old. He is a big-game hunter, and Cecil was his prize, even though Palmer's statement in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Tuesday indicated that he didn't know how well-known the lion was.

I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt. I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the U.S. about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have. Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

On the surface, Palmer's motivation seems quite simple: He is a professional hunter, he saw the chance to hunt a lion, and he took it. But as National Geographic points out, there is much more at play here than an isolated hunting incident. Cecil's death has sparked increased international criticism of trophy hunting, which is the selective hunting of wild game animals and the subsequent creation of a "trophy," or souvenir, from the animal's body. Trophy hunting is difficult to regulate, especially in Africa, where it is legal in some countries and not in others. International treaties dictate that legal trophy hunting should raise money for conservation efforts, but as the National Geographic piece explains, a combination of corruption and the black market means that the funds aren't always going where they're supposed to.

It would be prudent to perceive Cecil's death as part of the larger system that allows trophy hunting to continue, rather than within a vacuum of just Palmer. If legal trophy hunting actually did contribute to the conservation of endangered species, it might make sense from a utilitarian perspective for governments to maintain it, but given that corruption continues to siphon funds generated through this type of funding, and that a treasured animal like Cecil can still be killed by professional hunters even with protections in place, the system clearly isn't stable. Palmer's actions are just one symptom of this instability.

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