After the killing of Cecil the Lion a few weeks ago, there were two very distinct reactions: one mourning the loss of life of this majestic beast, some even calling for the poacher’s death in retaliation; the other bemoaning what was viewed as a distorted reaction of the worldwide outcry over an animal’s death when there are millions of people suffering with far less media attention.
Does the life of Cecil really matter in the grand scheme of things?
We often name animals in an effort to endear them to us. We care more for things that we give human qualities to. This can be traced back to the roots of the conservation movement when President Teddy Roosevelt refused to kill a captured bear during a hunting trip. Toy companies found a great marketing angle selling stuffed bears with the president’s namesake.
Zoos have adopted the naming practice as well, which has led to a mass education effort about biodiversity and has brought nature closer to those living in highly developed areas while making nature more approachable and lauded.
Some claim that ‘humanizing’ wild beasts by naming them removes us from their ferocity, which is a very real threat to many people who find themselves in close proximity to wild animals. Lions, tigers and bears are not cute. They are vicious and threaten livestock, crops and the lives of people. This threat used to be relegated to remote areas, but with their natural habitat siphoned off and fragmented due to human development, these beasts are often left with little choice but to venture closer to us.
In exploration and then development of new lands, wild animals were seen as something to conquer and diminish — for safety as well as for sport. People have been replacing nature with buildings, roadways and artificially manicured parks, driving animals to the ever diminishing undisturbed margins.
Besides creating cramped conditions, what do people have to do with the animal kingdom?
The mapping of the interconnections and interdependency of living things are called food webs. They demonstrate the directional exchange of energy, essential for survival and balance of ecosystems. The basic components illustrate the mechanisms needed for sustaining vegetation (producers), the first level consumers that eat the plants (herbivores), the secondary consumers that eat the primary consumers (carnivores), and the decomposers that process dead or decaying matter into essential elements to be taken up again by plants.
Compromising any population so adversely that it affects the balance of the ecosystem also impacts people’s ability to live sustainably off the land. One may argue that the reason why beasts such as lions are feared, and cause maiming and crop destruction, is because of imbalanced ecosystems.
Even with conservation and restoration efforts, habitat fragmentation threatens the future of many species. The land animals need to roam, forage and find suitable mates has been severely carved up and diminished, and efforts to create protected corridors for migration are fraught with political obstacles.
So what of Cecil’s death? An absolute tragedy; but not because a lion’s life is more valuable than a human’s. Because people have not yet learned that we are all interdependent on each other in order to survive. People alone cannot balance ecosystems. We need other species to make the systems on our planet work.