Look out for a new breed of accountability
EARLY last month, American dentist and long-time hunter Walter Palmer reportedly shot dead a 13-year-old lion named Cecil in the plains of Zimbabwe.
According to news reports, Dr Palmer had initially hit the lion with an arrow, but it was not enough to kill it, and he and his team had to track it down for almost two days before the fatal shot. The lion was then decapitated and skinned.
Cecil, it turned out, was a famous lion in western Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, and had even worn a tracking collar since 2008 as part of a scientific study.
News reports have suggested that it was lured away from the park before being shot, and that the entire act was clearly illegal as neither Theo Bronkhorst - the local hunter to whom Dr Palmer had allegedly paid US$50,0000 (S$70,000) - nor Honest Ndlovu, the landowner of the property where Cecil was shot, had the permit for a lion hunt.
The outrage came swiftly. Within hours of his identification as the hunter, a Facebook page was set up to name and shame him. His clinic had to be closed, and people set up a makeshift memorial with stuffed lions in front of it, commemorating the lion that he had killed.
The 55-year-old soon apologised. "I had no idea that the lion I took was a known local favourite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt," he was quoted as saying.
"I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt."
GROWING ANIMAL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
The global furore over the death of an animal has several precedents in recent memory.
Last year, despite a 20,000-strong online petition opposing the move, a two-year-old giraffe named Marius was killed at the Copenhagen Zoo and its meat fed to the lions. The zookeepers insisted that the move was to combat inbreeding among the giraffes, and was actually for the good of the population.
Even so, the public reaction was mostly negative, and the zookeepers even received death threats.
Last May, Texas hunter Corey Knowlton killed a black rhino in Namibia after bidding US$350,000 to earn the right for the hunt - drawing parallels with Dr Palmer's payment of US$50,000 for the lion. These fees raise questions on whether the privilege of wealth can cause ethical concerns for the killing of animals to be waived.
Big-game hunting advocates have argued that the big fees are helping conservation work, and that regulated and responsible hunting is actually a deterrent against illegal hunting.
Others also point out that hunting is providing thousands of jobs in Africa. Finally, there are those who suggest that hunting helps weed out weak animals in a world where "survival of the fittest" is the rule.
However, the growing controversy that big-game hunting has sparked in recent years speaks of the rise of the animal rights movement, which is informed by the philosophical view that animals, just like humans, have moral rights including the right to life, the protection of individual liberty and freedom from torture.
Of course, there is also a wider global community of animal lovers who, while not philosophically committed to the idea that animals in general should not be eaten or killed, do believe that endangered species should be protected. In the case of Cecil, this spectrum of views finds common ground.
Moreover, on top of the moral discourse of animal rights, there is a political subtext in this particular case. The Facebook images of Dr Palmer, a Westerner, posing with a slaughtered lion, a symbol of Africa, resonate with lingering post-colonial suspicions of white men's interventions in the global South.
There is something about Cecil itself that has helped catalyse the global outrage. Would there have been the same reaction had it been a wildebeest or hyena that was killed?
The lion is enshrined in our cultures: in our night sky as the constellation Leo, and in our childhood imagination as Simba in Disney's Lion King. We speak of "lionising" people even as we try to "humanise" the way we deal with animals.
But given the fact that there are only 20,000 lions left in the wild, there is a strong case for being particularly concerned about the fate of these great animals.
Aside from making sense of the outrage itself, there is also something to be learnt in the way it was mediated by, in the words of a Washington Post article, a "vengeful Internet".
The backlash that Dr Palmer has received speaks of the emergence of a new kind of accountability, facilitated by social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which can radically transform the reputation of people from obscurity to infamy.
This powerful, novel way of fomenting and channelling global outrage can deal a decisive blow to questionable practices like big-game hunting.
Even in African countries where wildlife rules can sometimes be contravened, the threat of a social media backlash may be a defence that can save lions - and other animals - from sharing Cecil's unfortunate fate.
However, one man's spectacular and swift downfall should also give us pause with this new power of online shaming that social media has enabled. What are the rules of this hunt?
PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK