In this age of social media, where the policy is say-anything-you-want-even-if-untrue, we have almost completely lost sight of a legal principal that is central to our nation’s founding: innocent until proven guilty.
Today, the pen (or keyboard) is in fact often mightier than the sword.
Perhaps the most remarkable example of this occurred in coverage of the killing of a 13-year-old male lion named Cecil in July 2015 in Zimbabwe. The editorial and social media aftermath was analyzed by David W. Macdonald and colleagues from the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), the ones who had placed GPS collars on many lions in the area, including the now infamous Cecil, killed by a bow-hunting Minnesotan.
Here is what we now know to be fact.
1. A large male lion that was part of a radio-tracking study by WildCRU lived in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The lion was a park favorite and was named Cecil by WildCRU researchers.
2. Cecil’s natural home range included areas outside the park where hunting was legal. Cecil was not lured out of the park by bait, he was in part of his normal range. He was shot over bait, legally, on July 1, 2015, by the Minnesota hunter using a bow and arrow. The hit was not immediately fatal and the lion was tracked and dispatched the next day (as one would ethically expect).
3. The hunt was allegedly illegal because no “hunting quota” had been issued to the landowner or the professional hunter. However, both have since been exonerated. Additionally, by all standards, the hunt was ethical: A professional hunter was present, bow hunting is legal for lions, and the animal was recovered and dispatched as humanely as possible. The client claimed he was told everything was legal.
4. The GPS collar on Cecil seemingly was not handled well by the hunting team. Signals from the GPS collar showed it was removed at the site of the kill, moved on July 3 and discarded, recovered on July 4 by someone, and destroyed (inferred because the signal stopped).
5. The identity of the hunter was released on July 27, prompting protests at his Minnesota business and elsewhere. He received death threats, and it was reported he had been previously cited for a bear hunting violation in Wisconsin.
6. On July 28, TV personality Jimmy Kimmel gave an impassioned, albeit erroneous, account of the event on his program, prompting enormous public outcry.
Who could forget the reporting and social media outcry that followed? The number of media articles mentioning the event peaked at 11,788 on July 29, and single-day Facebook, Twitter and YouTube mentions of Cecil’s killing peaked at 87,533.
By contrast, from 1999 to 2015, about 65 lions were harvested on land surrounding the park, 45 of them carrying GPS collars. None received the media attention — or lies — that Cecil’s killing did.
Macdonald and his colleagues concluded the incident received so much attention because of the many hot-button factors involved: a wealthy, white, male American traveling abroad to hunt; trophy hunting; a majestic lion; the practice of baiting; a popular animal with a human name; the sport of bow hunting; the fact the lion was not immediately killed; and the belief, however erroneous, that the hunt was illegal.
Each by itself can stir reaction among anti-hunters and non-hunters. Taken together, they produced an ugly avalanche of vitriol. A “visible anger was a very common thread running through posts concerning Cecil,” the WildCRU researchers concluded.
Who’s to blame? The hunter? I’m sorry, but if I had paid $55,000, the reported fee for the hunt, and was told by the professional hunter that it was legal, I’d accept his word.
And winners? There are few, if any — though in response to the lion’s death, WildCRU received $1.06 million from 13,335 donors. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might require nations to demonstrate that lion hunting is managed in a way that will support a sustainable harvest; a good thing, I think.
If anything else positive resulted from the Cecil episode, I can’t think of it.
Yet the Minnesota hunter did everything right. The hunt was legal, and he used a legal hunting method (bow over bait).
I personally would not care to shoot a lion, but I support anyone who wants to do it legally. Hunters’ fees, after all, help local economies.
This episode shows that all hunters should continue to educate people about why we hunt. It underscores as well the need among hunters to make sure everything about a hunt is legal, and to consider the consequences that could result even from legal hunts, when reported by the general press, and particularly over social media.
Remember: Nowadays, you can’t count on being considered innocent until proven guilty.
Editor’s note: A hunter, Robert Zink, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Nebraska. Formerly he was the Breckenridge Chair in Ornithology at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum. A version of this story previously appeared in Outdoor News.