Cecil, Scarface, Sekoti: Does giving animals ‘human faces’ help or harm?

Celebrated: Cecil the Lion’s killing sparked international condemnation in 2015 PIC:  ANDY LOVERIDGE.AP
Celebrated: Cecil the Lion’s killing sparked international condemnation in 2015 PIC: ANDY LOVERIDGE.AP

While the humanisation of wild animals in nature documentaries has helped draw more attention to issues of conservation and the lives of these species, wildlife scientists and academics argue that these widely popular films are often doctored to heighten emotions, portray animals as constantly facing death and exclude human communities living with the animals. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI explains why this debate is particularly critical in Botswana

In 2015, the killing of a lion in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North province created a perfect global storm of protest, with major titles such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and many others running front-page outrage pieces on the incident.Western animal rights activists, enraged by the hunting of the lion, demanded action from their governments against trophy hunting with France and the Netherlands responding by banning the importation of trophies into their countries.

The United States went further, with airlines there refusing to carry animal trophies and the legislature passing the Cecil Act restricting imports of lion and other species’ trophies.

Lions have been hunted before, either as problem animals or as part of trophy hunting activities throughout the region and since the turn of the last century. This particular lion, given the name Cecil, had gained a global audience of fans through wildlife films and high profile wildlife research.


The anger at his killing, in a legal hunt, led to death threats and attacks against the US citizen who shot him and resulted in a storm of anti-African, often racist and condescending rhetoric about regional countries’ wildlife management programmes.

Technically known as anthropomorphism, the extension of human attributes, including names, personalities that even include deceit and guile, is a popular mechanism for the producers of wildlife documentaries, helping audiences in Western countries identify with the animals they are enthralled by but will likely never encounter in real life.

Cecil in Zimbabwe, Scarface in Kenya and Sekoti in Botswana are the stars of a rising celebrity lion phenomenon that extends to other species such as elephants. While local storytelling of these ‘celebrities’ like Sekoti often incorporates the human element, such as the guides who spot and manage these animals, for Western audiences, without live access to these iconic species, the wildlife films often provide a skewed view of these animals.

Producers of these documentaries, apart from riding on the human names and personalities given to these animals, also compete for audience attention through methods such as injecting soap opera storylines and a technique known as ‘false jeopardy’. False jeopardy refers to the suggestion made in many wildlife film episodes that a beloved character might die, his/her fate is unclear or that they are facing extraordinary threats such as dry seasons, despite these being a cyclical event every year.

Wildlife documentary series tend to end each episode on a cliff-hanger about the fate of the starring animal, a hook to keep audiences watching for the next episode. However, researchers say the cliff-hangers are often based on false jeopardy and are not representative of the true experience of these animals in their ecosystem.

The question may be asked: what is the problem if more attention is being given to the conservation of these animals and if therefore viewers are incentivised to contribute the millions of pula required for helping these species?

In a recent paper, four eminent wildlife scientists and researchers, point out the problem, which has particular resonance for Botswana which faced a global backlash in 2019 for reintroducing trophy hunting after a five-year ban.

“We should clarify that we are not arguing that anthropomorphism is in itself a bad thing,” reads the paper by Keith Somerville, Amy Dickman, Paul Johnson and Adam Hart.

“It is where the tendency to portray animals as humans is taken to extremes that it may have a distorting effect on public understanding of human-wildlife relations (especially when the real humans in the landscapes are ignored), and therefore undermine the understanding of the aims of conservation.”

Because for many in the West, wildlife films are their only source of readily available knowledge about species and their management in Africa, the telling of the story becomes critical. In 2019, Botswana came under aggressive attack from Western animal rights groups who assailed the country for reintroducing limited trophy hunting, particularly for elephants, despite the government undertaking a six-month-long consultation countrywide aimed at gathering views from citizens who actually live with the animals.

International campaigns were launched to boycott local tourism, petitions are still filling up and pressure has been brought to bear to the effect that any solutions must be endorsed by animal rights groups and those affiliated with them.

Analysts say the removal of humans in the portrayal and humanisation of iconic species such as elephants gives viewers in those countries an inaccurate picture of the complex issues around wildlife management and triggers unwarranted outrage when difficult decisions are taken.

African leaders have found themselves under attack at a personal level, with President Mokgweetsi Masisi facing off against a heckler during a visit to Las Vegas in May 2019. Masisi, in subsequent comments, has been unequivocal about the criticism.

“Why are you afraid to call it what it is,” he said in a briefing with local media.

“It’s a racist onslaught. It’s racism.

“They talk as if we are the grass the elephants eat.

“It startles me when people sit in the comfort of where they are and lecture us about the management of species they don’t have.”

Masisi’s Namibian counterpart, Hage Geingob, who has a reputation for shooting from the hip, was equally blunt during his comments at the Kasane Elephant Summit held in 2019.

“I listened this morning to all the experts lecturing us and I wanted to ask where they come from. If they are from Europe or the US, I wanted to ask them how they destroyed all their elephants, but come to lecture us.

“We have a problem because we have managed to protect ours. Our success is now our problem.

“We should actually be going to Europe and telling them how to manage elephants.”

The extreme humanising of species and the accompanying tendency to remove human relations with them, was evident in an estimate by Zimbabwean state newspaper, The Chronicle, indicating that the majority, up to 99% of Zimbabweans, were not aware of Cecil. Their encounters with lions and consequent conservation approach are informed by real-life interactions which often include attacks by the animals, injuries, deaths and destruction of crops in the case of elephants.

Commenting previously on the Cecil outrage, Jean Kapata, Zambia’s minister of tourism, said the West seemed more concerned with the welfare of a lion in Zimbabwe than of Africans themselves.

“In Africa, a human being is more important than an animal. I don’t know about the Western world.”

Besides the tendency towards extreme humanisation of iconic species and the removal of human interactions, the four scientists and researchers note problems with the methods sometimes employed to produce drama and soap opera-like storylines to keep viewers watching.

Faced with the pressure to film and produce to expectations they preset for audiences, producers have used shortcuts such as editing together sequences filmed at different times, using forms of artifice (including filming captive animals as though they were wild) and constructing stories from disparate film sequences.

One example of this involved the BBC’s Frozen Planet documentary, hosted by famous natural historian Sir David Attenborough.

“An example of an older Attenborough-fronted documentary using fakery that was unacknowledged in the film but later revealed was the filming of polar bears in a zoo amid fake snow, which purported to show a polar bear giving birth in the wild in the BBC’s Frozen Planet in December 2011.”

The scientists add that while narrators say filmmakers have waited “patiently in the jungle for years” in order to ‘capture’ an animal on film, the truth is that directors, however, spend much more time in the studio and in the editing room than on location.

“(This) helps to create an artificial ‘emotional’ relationship to animals...nature filmmakers produce at very high shooting ratios, then construct specific events through editing, utilising images which may indeed have no spatial and temporal relationship to each other and may involve dozens of animals, rather than the one example ostensibly being depicted.”

Due to the focus on soap opera and extreme humanising of animals, often with the creation of human attributes such as group politics, heroic survival themes and others, while portraying the manipulation of scenes as an authentic, continuous story, the audience is given an inaccurate and misinformed picture of species.

The documentaries are created to be entertainment, edited and produced as such with scenes manipulated to fit storylines that identify with and trigger human emotional reactions but marketed as authentic and factual.

“The problem that can arise from this approach is that by labelling the documentaries as ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ when there is a high level of artifice or reconstruction of supposed events creates the danger that the informative and educative role of wildlife documentaries is distorted, with misleading information being conveyed,” the scientists argue.

Somerville, Dickman, Johnson and Hart recently faced off against wildlife film producers in a virtual discussion triggered by the recent academic paper. George Verdon, a wildlife documentary assistant producer, said any debate on the merits of anthropomorphism and film-making tactics, should start by looking at the intended targets of the films.

“I don’t think most of these are aimed at scientists,” he said.

“Accuracy is important for wildlife policymaking, definitely, but the thing is that the average audience is not likely to be making much of these decisions.

“The other side is making it understandable and appealing to those people like as if you are explaining it to your mother.

“If I were to try and explain the social dynamics of a pride, most of that would go over their heads.

“The information is out there and it is accurate but it would not connect with people.

“Textbooks exist and information is there, but characterisation is an important tool in connecting with people.”

Verdon acknowledges the shortcuts filmmakers sometimes use to ensure the scenes are put together to fit a preconceived storyline.

“The idea is that you are trying to tell a true story but sometimes the ingredients you use are not exactly as they are.”

Paul Wooding, a factual producer at the BBC, explained that the soap opera drama ‘hooks’ the audience while the documentaries ‘drip feed’ their audience ‘reveals’ throughout the series to keep them engaged.

Lina Kabbadj, a wildlife filmmaker, said anthropomorphism is essential to wildlife film production.

“We are putting distance and barriers between humans and other species, but the more we study and research them, we find similarities.

“We have a tendency to put humans above everything else.”

Dickman, who is a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford, is unconvinced and unmoved.

“I almost never watch wildlife documentaries,” she said.

“I find the reality of what is being purported is so different from what we see as conservationists.

“There’s a huge interest in them but the time is running out for us to use that interest in a good way.

“It should not be about loving a specifically named lion, but respecting the need for conservation of an entire species and habitat and critically the people living alongside them.”

While filmmakers argue that at best humanisation attracts needed attention, spreads interest and brings in conservation funding, and at worst is harmless, scientists say the veneration and elevation of some named species like Cecil or Scarface blur over the broader species and its management.

When one of the named animals dies, for instance, Cecil and Scarface, who died of natural causes earlier this year, the outpouring of grief or outrage can harm conservation efforts because attention has been improperly shaped by wildlife film soap operas and a focus on a named animal instead of the broader ecosystem within which it exists.

This approach also means other species, which are critical in the ecosystem but portrayed as the bad guys in the ‘soap operas’ such as vultures and hyenas, do not benefit from conservation funding.

For countries like Botswana, which depend on all forms of tourism goodwill, the debate on the humanisation of animals and the storytelling around species is one to watch for as local wildlife management policies on the ground fight to remain independent of the sometimes emotion-driven responses of Western observers.

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