Until the lions have their own historians: the objectification of black and animal bodies in hunting
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Last month, it was written that Donald Trump Jr. went abroad to western Mongolia to, in the words of Matt Stieb for New York Magazine, "combine two of his favorite things: benefiting from his father’s presidency and killing endangered animals for pleasure."
A ProPublica report said Trump Jr. went on a hunting trip to shoot an argali—a giant sheep with curved horns up to six feet in length—and received a retroactive permit once coming in from the field.
The story reminded me of a quote from King Leopold’s Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. It’s a remarkable historical text. It follows in part the exploits of explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The quoted account was from one of his officers
It was most interesting, lying in the bush watching the natives quietly at their day’s work. Some women…were making banana flour by pounding up dried bananas. Men we could see building huts and engaged in other work, boys and girls running about, singing…I opened up the game by shooting one chap through the chest. He fell like a stone…Immediately a volley was poured through the village.
A reader could easily be shocked by this text because the officer so casually describes the thoughtless murder of Black African humans. But I’m struck by how simply un-extraordinary this text actually is because it’s the reality of non-human Africans every day.
The officer 'opened up the game' by shooting one chap through the chest.
Big game, small game. Hunting is a game to those with power.
How many of us give a thought to animal persons going about their daily tasks, drinking from a stream, watching their children, oblivious to the fact that someone nearby with a gun wants them dead as a way of spending an afternoon?
The dichotomy between Human as a political identity and Animal as a separate and almost opposite political identity is something that I've addressed endlessly. But few people illustrate it as blatantly as Guardians of the Galaxy star and hunting enthusiast Chris Pratt, who said in a 2015 interview,
I have a great deal of respect for the animals that I kill, and I feel remorse and all of the emotions that come with it. The thing inside me that drives me to go out and hunt is very animal. But the remorse, emotion and respect I feel, and the closeness to God that I feel when I'm out there, is my humanity. It's an opportunity for me to explore what parts of me are animal and what parts of me are human.
He distances himself from the sheer barbarism of hunting by deeming it animal and seeks the redemptive power of remorse by deeming it human. Indeed he even invokes God to absolve him of his violence. Here Pratt lays bare the distinction between who is capable of complex emotional experiences and who is simply an object. And make no mistake, Black lives are objectified every bit as much as non-human animals.
Immediately following the quoted text in King Leopold's Ghost, Hochschild went on to write, “One member of the expedition packed the severed head of an African in a box of salt and sent it to London to be stuffed and mounted by his Piccadilly taxidermist.”
Again, nothing extraordinary at all about the wealthy and the powerful regarding the dismembered body parts of their victims as objects and trophies. Take the case of El Negro.
In 1831, French dealer Jules Verreaux witnessed the burial of a Tswana warrior in the African interior to the north of Capetown. Shockingly, he returned under the cover of darkness to DIG UP HIS REMAINS AND ROB HIS GRAVE. The warrior’s body was displayed as a museum piece for over 150 years before it was finally returned to African soil and properly buried in 2000.
Whether Black African human or non-human animal, colonial forces have a long and sordid history of treating the bodies of the colonized as things, tokens on the board when hunters consider other lives as Game™.
Hunting Versus Poaching
According to the BBC, “The crucial distinction to be made between poaching and hunting is where each sits in the eyes of the law. Put simply, poaching is hunting without legal permission from whoever controls the land.”
A casual observer might think that the semantic difference is inconsequential. But the categorization is of great importance. Because even if someone considers hunting undesirable, it is still an institutionally protected activity in terms of the judicial system. Poaching, by comparison, is punishable by law and earns near-universal scorn in civil society.
Simply put, when animal violence as entertainment is sanctioned by our institutions, it is hunting. When animal violence is undertaken by the people most vulnerable to the effects of poverty, it’s poaching.
And that discreet use of language bears out in practice. Scan articles about Cecil the lion, who briefly captivated our attention when his life was stolen by dentist Walter Palmer.
Several articles from National Geographic repeatedly reference Palmer as a trophy hunter and describe Cecil’s killing as an ‘illegal’ hunt. But the word poaching was used multiple times to describe violence against wild animals when it was divorced from white perpetrators. It's tempting to shy away from addressing race when discussing sport hunting, but the uncomfortable reality is that race is impossible to ignore.
The Race Card
According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016, up to 97% of U.S. American hunters are white, and the percentages of other racial groups are so small that they were deemed statistically insignificant. As an added fun fact, hunters are statistically male (roughly 90% male to 10% female in the United States).
And when it comes to trophy hunting in particular outside the United States, the numbers become even clearer.
The Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society in conjunction with the Professional Hunters of South Africa released a study in 2017. The majority of respondents in the study were male (97%) with an average age of 61 years, A total of 41% had obtained a diploma or degree, followed by 30% who obtained a post-graduate degree and 19% who obtained a professional education.
Respondents from the United States formed the majority of the sample with 86%, followed by 6% from Canada and 2% from South Africa. Other counties included Germany, Grenada, Ireland, Norway, Spain and Switzerland.
It might be an uncomfortable reality to face. But the numbers don’t lie. Hunting is the domain of white men of European ancestry. American exceptionalism, doing what it does.
What about people who need to hunt for food?
Hunting in the United States generates as little as $23 billion annually or as much as $38.3 billion, according to 2015 statistics from the NSSF (the Firearms Industry Trade Association). Regardless of what number you use, that’s a lot of money. In fact, it averages out to $2,800 per hunter. All things considered, people living in such financially disparate conditions don’t enjoy the economic mobility to make this such a profitable industry. In fact, the aforementioned USFWS reporting indicates that statistically zero households earning less than $39,999 per year engage in hunting. So although some people may indeed eat the corpses of their victims, it’s unlikely to be out of necessity.
Furthermore, Dr. Peet van der Merwe, senior lecturer and researcher in the School of Tourism Management at the North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus, said the following of sport hunting in South Africa
The average spending of trophy hunters, including game hunted and general spending in South Africa, amounted to $20,135. This excludes the travel cost to SA of $5,068. […] The total economic contribution of trophy hunting to the South African economy is therefore estimated to be $130,880.
Statistically, hunting is just not a task undertaken most by the underclass, nor is it a task commonly associated with people of color, as reflected by the data.
Trope of the Noble Savage
Where discussions persist about hunters of color, people quickly invoke the myth of the noble savage—the idealized uncivilized man, who “symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.”
But this archetype is demonstrably reductive. And it’s surprisingly deployed by black speakers as commonly as white ones. Does subsistence hunting exist and do indigenous populations need to do it for survival? Absolutely. But what drives a desire to glamorize harsh lifestyles where killing is a necessity to defend the lifestyles of people who are not exposed to the conditions that necessitate it?
So just remember that when the press seeks to conceal the role white masculinity plays in our relationships with other animals, they willfully become complicit in acts of violence. And when we ignore the bias of the media apparatus because want access to the power white masculinity holds, we become complicit ourselves.
The Lion King
Literary giant Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, told the Paris Review in a 1994 interview
There is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail — the bravery, even, of the lions.
Given these truths, I can only ask: why are there not more Black-identified historians to curate the stories of metaphorical and actual lions? Our planet burns, and we selfishly turn our backs on our non-human brothers and sisters despite our common need to survive colonial rule.
According to Panthera, lions are extinct in 26 African countries, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list places the total number of lions left in the world at somewhere between 20,000 and 39,000.
No one likes being compared to animals unless and until that comparison is with the mighty lion. But with their quiet disappearance, with whom then shall we compare our canines?
For more accurate historical and current takes on various Native American diets, read Dr. Rita Laws and follow FaunAcción for anti-speciesist education from Mexico and Latin America. And if you liked this piece, shared it with your friends, or bookmarked it for future discussions, please consider contributing to my Patreon.