The Spectacular Environmentalism of Cecil the Lion

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McCubbin, Sandra
political ecology , animal geography , human-environment geography , conservation
In July 2015, Cecil the lion’s death sparked international furore over the practice of lion trophy hunting. Interest in the Cecil story was truly spectacular. The story cut across space and scale ensnaring actors from southern Africa, the United Kingdom, and North America, from rural African villagers and Western publics to an American celebrity and a billionaire philanthropist. This dissertation investigates the Cecil story - how it unfolded, and its implications for lion conservation – as a window through which to explore broader questions relevant to human-environment geography, particularly the fields of political ecology and animal geography. Broadly, it is concerned with how spectacular discourses of global environmental crises take shape, (mis)represent environmental problems, and (re)produce power in particular ways. This dissertation draws on reading across political ecology and animal geography. Through analysis of media, documents, events, and interviews using actor-network theory and discourse analysis, this dissertation traces the Cecil Moment, the Cecil Movement, and the dissonance between the two. It also connects insights from the Cecil story to conservation politics more broadly through comparative analysis. Ultimately, the research uncovers a shift in the politics of the Cecil story. It finds that the Cecil Moment operated to dismiss the anti-trophy hunting politics that sparked and fuelled it in the first place; yet, the momentum of the Cecil Moment was grasped and re-directed toward other lion conservation priorities. I argue that this re-direction was not neutral; rather, the Cecil Movement altered the politics of the Cecil Moment in a way that reproduced longstanding patterns of conservation injustice, wherein blame for biodiversity loss is directed away from powerful forces onto the racialized, rural poor from the Global South and wherein concern for individual animals is dismissed in favour of concern for species and populations. This research suggests that spectacular environmentalisms operate through more-than-human networks and mutable narratives that are not necessarily conducive to progressive transformation of environmental politics. Rather, they can entrench familiar patterns of conservation injustice, reproducing the power of already-empowered claims to authority, forms of knowledge, identities, and types of human-animal relationships.
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