Dr. Palmer gained worldwide notoriety for killing Cecil the lion while on safari in Zimbabwe. For the pleasure of relieving Cecil of his mortal coil, Dr. Palmer paid $55,000 to a private guide outfit. The dentistry business appears to be booming in Bloomington.
Unbeknownst to Dr. Palmer, Cecil was a celebrity (albeit on the lowest of planes, considering that Cecil was unbeknownst to nearly every native Zimbabwean just a few days ago) in the hinterlands of Zimbabwe. The U.K. Telegraph tells us, “Conservation groups in Zimbabwe reacted angrily to the news that the 13-year-old animal had been killed; partly because the lion was known to visitors and seemingly enjoyed human contact, and partly because of the way he was killed.” Hwange National Park, the largest game reserve in Zimbabawe, is the park the Telegraph refers to.
By most refined sensibilities, the tale of Dr. Palmer's Zimbabwe escapade is a touch unseemly, and certainly unsporting: Cecil's fate was sealed when he was enticed to venture beyond the park's boundaries by a hired guide dragging a dead animal tethered to the rear of a car. The scent and the prospect of an easy meal proved irresistible to Cecil (as is so frequently the "guaranteed" 10% annual return to investors). Once Cecil was spotted, he was shot with a razor-tipped hunting arrow, but death eluded Cecil. Cecil, in turn, eluded his pursuers enough to stagger around injured, and no doubt in considerable discomfort, until he was found two days later. Cecil was then dispatched with a gunshot and subsequently skinned and beheaded.
Today, $55,000 must seem like a bargain to Dr. Palmer; the bill of his safari having risen exponentially over the past couple days. His dentistry practice has closed, along with the practice's website. His Yelp page has been swamped by hostile and abusive commentary. Dr. Palmer's Bloomington practice might be salvageable sometime in the unknowable future, but in the meantime he's incurring the cost to service current business obligations sans any current business revenue.
The first response to Cecil's death has been the most predictable – anthropomorphism and overt sentimentality. That Cecil “seemingly enjoyed human contact” is highly suspect. Cecil likely enjoyed it for the potential protein that could be gleaned more than anything else. Let's not forget that Cecil was a grown male lion, which weigh in at 500 pounds. Before we let the water works cascade to flood the delta, let's also not forget that Cecil surely inflicted his share of pain, with no remorse, on many of God's lesser-endowed creatures.
With that said, Cecil's death is a tragedy, but for an under-appreciated reason: Cecil, along with Dr. Palmer, was a victim of the tragedy of the commons. Cecil should have lived another 10 years, or he should have been killed 10 years sooner. Because Cecil was a ward of the state, it was impossible to determine his true economic value. Cecil was wandering property, not an emancipated being.
We could never know how much the people spewing vitriol and idle threats in Dr. Palmer's direction would have paid to keep Cecil alive. We know what Dr. Palmer would pay to see Cecil dead – $55,000. The effusion of sentimental twaddle and “I-feel-your-pain” emoting has been overwhelming, but it's all really meaningless without a concrete money price attached to it. Cecil's value was impossible to determine, given that Cecil roamed public lands where he was owned by no one.
If the Hwange National Park were privately owned and if Cecil were someone's property, his fate would have been predetermined with little fanfare. Perhaps Cecil economic value to a private property owner was $75,000 because of the tourists he attract, then Cecil's value would have been maximized as a tourist attraction. On the other hand, perhaps Cecil's tourist value was $25,000, then his value was maximized as a trophy for Dr. Palmer.
As it is, poaching will always be an intractable problem at Hwange National Park. Poaching can be traced to lack of private ownership, thus poaching is another tragedy of the commons. Because the animals are owned by no one, efforts to ensure their safety are muted. No one gives public property the level of care he gives his own property. You'll do your damnedest to protect Cecil if he's your property. If he's the “people's” property, you'll expend the same determination as a public employee charged with cleaning public restrooms.
But what if all the animals in the Hwange National Park have more value as trophy kills? Imagine the carnage. There would be carnage, but the animals would still exist (as a species, not necessarily the individual). Their owners would be sufficiently motivated to keep them in abundant supply. After all, the species that comprise beef cattle are amply populated (their antecedents, the aurochs, are nowhere to be found). Besides, value need not be mutually exclusive. Perhaps some animals in the Hwange National Park are more valuable as tourist attractions; perhaps others are more valuable as trophy kills.
Cecil's death is the observable tragedy, but not the real tragedy in this saga. The real tragedy is that a human life was ruined because of ambiguity of property rights and the indeterminate value of an animal.