The strange and sad story of Cecil the lion (named for an imperialist, collared for science, shot on a private ranch outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe) has many lessons for conservation. The one I want to consider here is what it says about trolls.
Trolls are mythical semi-humanoid supernatural creatures. They were once widely distributed in northern Europe, where the winter nights are long and cold. They are grumpy, fearsome, nocturnal, and hide in (or turn into) rocks. They are traditionally carnivorous, ambushing passers by, particularly those goats unwise enough disturb the peace by trip trapping over bridges Trolls are widely believed to be extinct, but in fact they have spread widely as Norse folklore has become the staple of the fantasy industry. Terry Pratchett has contributed a great deal to our understanding: they turn out to be surprisingly good at maths, when it gets cold enough. Recent sightings include New Zealand, where dim-witted nocturnal trolls are reported to have attacked travellers, and taken to disturbing the peace by fighting. To Tolkein, trolls represented the dark side of the rural idyll of the Shire: large, unsociable and stupid, in contrast to the robust, bucolic intelligence of the hobbits.
As far as I know, there are no trolls in Zimbabwe. But their latter-day alter egos, internet trolls, seem very familiar with the place. The estimable Wikipedia defines an internet troll as ‘a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community… with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion’.
The internet came down like a ton of bricks on the American hunter who shot Cecil, a dentist from Minnesota. The staid BBC noted that the global outcry led to Walter Palmer being ‘swamped with abuse and dark humour from web users around the world’. Among other things, someone created a fake Twitter account for his dental practice, with predictable results. The commentariat, on line, in print and on TV, went into overdrive, leaving no analytical stone unturned. Not all the comment was amusing: there were death threats, and vandalism at Palmer’s properties. He went into hiding, and faces prosecution in the face of the universal disgust and hostility of the online world.
This internet storm had a number of features. First, and most obviously, it was characterised by moral condemnation of the idea of killing an animal like a lion: perhaps thanks to Disney’s Lion King, lions share with Elephants a special place in Western affections (Mufasa joining the Dumbo club). Moreover, the killing was done incompetently using a crossbow (Cecil had to be finished off later with a rifle). This death was clearly cruel, unnecessary, gratuitous, done for a rich man’s pleasure. Of course, not every one commenting on Cecil’s killing had a thought-through position on animal welfare. In the Observer, Barbara Ellen noted that ‘many people “do” animal welfare: singly, from afar, a sprinkle of stardust, much noise and bluster, job done, dab the eyes, blow the nose, quietly return to a blinkered world of battery eggs, hunting ban repeals and cheap farmed leather’. Nonetheless, the death proved the classic animal welfare and rights case: hunting is morally wrong, and anyone who does it must be a moral degenerate.
Second, there was the seemingly universal disbelief that such a thing as a global hunting industry exists, and that wealthy people can and do regularly (and legally) hunt animals. Moreover, they not only kill those that might be thought of as ‘game’ (such as deer or pheasants), but those that are rare (or have declined) or are cute. They travel to places like southern Africa, and shoot buffalo, giraffe, elephant and rhinoceros (and lion).
Third, there was shock that this ‘safari hunting’ might be part and parcel of a conservation strategy, as it is in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in southern Africa. This is where it gets starts to get tricky for conservation organisations. The question of ‘big game hunting’ is an integral part of conservation’s colonial history in Africa, a past that is obviously anachronistic. However, there are pragmatic arguments for allowing such a trade, relating to the possibility of using revenues either to offset the cost of conservation in poor countries, or to meet the development needs of rural communities and poor people in those countries. At the same time, there are important questions to be asked about such hunting, not just about its morality, but also how to ensure that harvests are sustainable, and to deal with corruption in licensing schemes.
It goes without saying that no pragmatic argument about the best way to ensure the survival of species carries any weight with anyone opposed to killing on moral grounds: these are different value frames. Conservation has always been plural in its values. Conservationists show concern for the plight of individual animals (as those using charismatic mammals in conservation advertising know very well), even where they express a more abstract concern for the survival of biodiversity. The storm over Cecil the lion shifted the balance of debate in conservation dramatically in favour of the arguments of animal welfare organisations (and countries like Kenya) that sport hunting is morally unacceptable and should be stopped.
While the internet storm over Cecil the lion is highly relevant to the wildlife policy in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in Africa, it also has broader implications for conservation. These relate to the impact of social media. Conservation organisations are so heavily committed to social media, as a way of getting their message out and recruiting supporters. This mean that what social media says about conservation strategies has real bite. Hunting-based conservation strategies are suddenly embarrassing.
Conservation organisations have been eager adopters of ‘Web 2.0’. Lucy McRobert argued that the internet (‘Facebook Nature’ as she dubbed it) ‘has the power to educate, excite and engage with a wider audience than any single organisation can achieve through hardcopy publications, or that any educational institution can accomplish when shackled by a counter-productive and safety-conscious curriculum’. All well and good, you might say. Online news sources such as Twitter and Facebook ‘offer new opportunities to accelerate communication between conservation scientists and the online public’. And, it seems, rare species are getting into the act: reintroduced red kites in Scotland are blogging using computer-generated language. But even where mere humans write the copy, almost all conservation organisations manage Facebook and Twitter streams about their projects, and many conservation organisations ask their staff to blog about their work.
And at one level, the internet’s outrage at the illegal killing of Cecil the lion, and more broadly against safari hunting, is just something for clever conservation campaigners to harness. It has already been appropriated by organisations campaigning against other forms of illegal killing, for example of elephants. On July 29th, the Washington Post reported that ‘as the world mourned Cecil the lion, five of Kenya’s endangered elephants were slain’. The Independent newspaper opened its article on the launch of The Giants Club, to garner support to stop elephant poaching in East Africa, saying ‘Cecil the lion sheds new light on African conservation’.
At another level, the international response to a single illegally and cruelly killed lion challenges a whole approach to conservation and development. Unsurprisingly, conservation organisations have been rather quiet about hunting-based conservation strategies in the aftermath of the Cecil debacle. This is a hard time to be defending the community-based hunting industry, or making the case for hunting as a conservation strategy. The transparency provided by social media’s global reach makes it hard to follow a policy in one place and yet fundraise on a different basis somewhere else.
So how should we think about what it means to hitch conservation to the globalised data streams of social media and the internet? The immediate prospect looks quite good: social media promises to dramatically widens the appeal of conservation (both socially and geographically), increasing conservation’s ‘reach’. From this might come new supporters, greater influence and more income. However, as the information net widens, so too does the range of people who pick up on news. Many of those reading social media will come to news without any knowledge of context or conservation, and will bring into play a range of new values. In the case of lion hunting in Zimbabwe, the conclusion of the vast majority of those on social media was that the hunting of lions and other large mammals was simply wrong, no doubts, no questions.
Live by the sword, die by the sword: if conservation is prosecuted through social media, it will be forced to abide by the norms of those who dominate that community. Science is hard to explain and evidence-based decisions may be hard to explain or to justify. Subtle arguments do not work very well in 140 characters. Those who are most connected get listened to first and most. Celebrity and connectivity determine influence.
Hence the conservation of trolls: in the world of the internet, it is the views of the connected that matter, meaning trolls as well as the many others who use social media to express their views in less extreme ways. And the case opens up conservation policy in Africa to a vast passing audience, whose views are strongly held and fiercely expressed.
In the end, whose values should drive conservation strategies in countries like Zimbabwe? Those of local people in rural areas where lions hunt and are hunted? Those of national government officials, balancing an industry against their international responsibilities for conservation? Those of media managers in international conservation NGOs, desperate to feed the insatiable demands of Facebook updates and Twitter streams? Or those who only think about conservation when they tune to the shifting emotional storm fronts of social media?
Who makes conservation policy? To find the answer, log on.