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Cecil, the dentist and a mass extinction event

By Darius Guppy

Hunting is a passion of mine – and there is no greater place to hunt than Africa – so I understand what motivated an American dentist to pursue a magnificent lion in search of a trophy. Contrary to hysterical and politically correct pronouncements on the part of those who know little of the connection between conservation and responsible hunting, such an instinct has nothing to do with blood lust or other innate psychopathy. For 99% of human existence man has been a hunter-gatherer and, as an apex predator, has been hardwired to stalk, corner and kill other creatures for his sustenance – exactly, as it happens, like Cecil the lion, and indeed all carnivores that have lived on this planet. Such an instinct may be deplorable for those happy to devour a burger or wear leather shoes but without it we wouldn’t be here.

Is this to condone the killing of Cecil, done not for sustenance, but for sport? No. It is simply to explain this instinct, which like many other instincts, such as the impulse to fight, procreate or acquire, must be regulated rather than wished away. Limitations of space proscribe a rehearsal of the usual arguments about the benefits of regulated hunting and its contribution to conservation but, broadly, those benefits are clear: selected culling of animals, with strict regard to numbers and breeding requirements helps maintain and increase populations of the species we all want to see on safari. Simply put, it is not in the interest of a game farmer to render his source of income extinct. Quite the reverse.


Where species are in danger of extinction, all hunting should be banned, and such bans ruthlessly enforced, the rhino or cheetah being obvious examples. And indeed, poachers are regularly shot dead – that is how seriously certain African Governments and farmers view the problem. In a borderline case such as the lion, where the evidence is less certain, the precautionary principle should apply, leading to outright prohibition until the numbers are comfortably up again. What is “comfortable” though? For in many regions and parks in Africa, while in aggregate terms populations may be down from historical levels, in relation to the carrying capacity of the land available for the herds in question the numbers may actually be too high, necessitating culling. In short, it is the destruction of the natural habitat of the wonderful creatures that grace this planet which is killing them off, far more than individual hunters. And that habitat destruction is almost entirely economically driven.

Here then is the crux. It is not some American dentist who has led to what is now accepted by the scientific community as the planet’s sixth mass extinction event (otherwise known as the “Holocene extinction”) – forget about a single lion – but rather that most dangerous, insatiable and molly-coddled of creatures ever to have walked the earth: the consumer. That consumer is in turn the product of an economic system which requires exponential growth in order to survive. And that growth is in its own turn what leads to the despoliation of the planet and the destruction of its flora and fauna. Finito, la musica.

So, if people pleasers and growth addicts like Messrs Obama and Cameron really want to get to the heart of the problem instead of garnering a few extra votes, this should be their most urgent priority: to devise an economic system capable of stability in a limited world, a world which at this stage must cope with non-growth, even shrinkage. This will be no easy feat since exponential economic growth and the consumption which accompanies it has been the traditional solution to a parallel exponential increase in debt. The task will be rendered even more problematic by the fact that those currently at the helm have been conditioned to follow a very specific economic orthodoxy and lack the imagination, originality or life experiences to venture out of their comfort zones. But the evidence is overwhelming: the mass extinction event currently upon us, unlike its predecessors, is man-made and its antidote can only ever be a reduction of our numbers and our appetites.

In short, having been programmed over only a handful of generations into an individualistic and short term pathology of more, more, more we will need to be re-programmed into a longer term mindset of less, less, less and even – anathema to neoliberal psychology – of share, share, share. Either that or as history has proven repeatedly when civilisations have ignored environmental constraints – as in MesoAmerica, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, for example – nature provides dramatic solutions.

I veer between optimism, with a faith in human ingenuity that will get us out of the bind – the soft landing if you like – and a Darwinian pessimism which views homo sapiens as yet another species that will come and go, its departure, unlike the rest, by suicide. Unfortunately, scientific precedent supports the pessimistic view since most species have a life span of only a few million years, about the time that hominids have been in existence. If there is a giant farmer in the sky then rather like the Australian government which introduced myxomatosis to deal with an out of control rabbit population, he must be fast approaching the point at which he will consider it time to deal with the most troublesome creature on the farm, the one which threatens to destroy everything: us.

Darius Guppy is an English businessman and essayist residing in Cape Town.

Image – Artist J Morello, after completing a painting of Cecil the Lion (L), works on another painting on a store front August 6, 2015 in New York. Morello is one of the artists participating in the LoMan art festival which brings large-scale works by acclaimed mural artists to 21 lower Manhattan neighborhoods, from 23rd Street to the South Street Seaport, in celebration of art that is public, permanent, and accessible to all. (AFP)