Cecil the Zimbabwean lion has gained more worldwide prominence in death than it ever did during its lifetime. Since Simba of “The Lion King” fame, no other lion has captured the world’s imagination in this way. The brutal killing of Cecil by Walter Palmer, an American dentist, has horrified and outraged people around the world. Palmer has been the subject of much criticism in the media.
I understand why people are upset and angry over his vile act. I love animals. As a small boy herding cattle with my friends in a village in Zimbabwe, we fought boys from another community for killing defenseless little birds. I despise cruelty in general, particularly toward wild creatures.
But it is important to put the outrage over Cecil’s death into perspective. We Zimbabweans don’t write our stories often enough. We leave them to be written by others and complain when our stories are not told properly and accurately. So let me tell my Zimbabwean version of the Cecil story.
A love of animals
Cecil’s tragedy has catapulted Zimbabwe in the news cycle; this time the villain is a dentist from Minnesota, not the usual characters from the political tribe. Reading about a “famous” and “much-loved” Zimbabwean lion in the international news, I was surprised that I did not know Cecil or that he was famous. I remembered Maswerasei, a lion that caused terror in Hurungwe, a rural area in the northwest of Zimbabwe, in the late 1980s. Myths were built around Maswerasei; legend has it that the notorious lion appeared only close to sunset, when people typically ask “Maswerasei” when they meet, meaning “How has your day been?”
Cecil was new to me. So I did a quick poll in my friends and family in Zimbabwe and around the world. None of them knew Cecil, who was supposedly “a symbol of Zimbabwe,” as one British paper put it.
The Zimbabwean reaction on social media was mixed and reflected conflicting sentiments. Many were outraged. Others were skeptical about the international media coverage of the story. Zimbabwe is going through serious economic challenges. Most people have pressing needs — food, shelter and employment. Thousands of workers have been laid off after a Supreme Court judgment earlier this month that allows companies to terminate workers without offering severance packages. Itai Dzamara, a Zimbabwean democracy activist, has been missing for more than four months. His family, friends and sympathizers are worried about his safety and whereabouts. Unlike Cecil’s story, Dzamara’s has not received much international coverage.
So forgive us ordinary Zimbabweans if our attention appears not so focused on Cecil. To be sure, we care about animals. In fact, I don’t know if there is any other culture in which people identify with wild animals as much as Zimbabweans do. Our clan names include Shumba (lion), Hove (fish), Mhofu (eland), Soko/Mukanya (monkey/baboon) and other references to animals and birds of the wild. I come from the Hove totem. As a result, along with my clan folk, I do not eat fish. This is true for other totems. You don’t eat or kill the animal or bird with which you are associated because, in effect, you would be killing or eating your own flesh and blood. Our ancestors knew the value of animals. This was one system of preserving them. Our society restricted who ate what from the wild in order to avoid overexploitation. Shumba clan members are regarded as the guardians of the nation, in whom the mhondoro, the spirits of the land, reside.
Cecil may have been famous only among a small segment of our society, a privileged group that had a stake in the lucrative tourism sector and the hunting industry.
Simply put, the manner in which Cecil’s story has been presented by the mainstream media appears removed from the lived realities of most Zimbabweans. The reason lies in the skewed economics around the tourism and hunting industries in Zimbabwe. It is mired in elitism and beyond the reach of many ordinary citizens. Local tourism is very weak. The economy is stagnant, and only a privileged few have disposable income to afford tourist excursions.
Apart from the few, Zimbabweans generally don’t go on vacation to a tourist facility such as a national park for wild animals. If they do, they are probably kids on an organized school trip or senior employees of someone who owns a chalet or a lodge at a tourist resort. Or they may go if nongovernmental groups organize a workshop at one of the wildlife resorts. Instead, our holidays typically consist of going to a rural village to spend time with the old folks and escape the routine of city life, if only for a few days.
A well-drilled army
Contrary to some perceptions, most people in Africa don’t live with or alongside wild animals. I once saw a crocodile while herding livestock, when it wrestled and killed a goat. I didn’t see lions, elephants and hippopotamuses until I was about 15, and I did only because our school took a field trip to Lake Kariba. Most Zimbabweans have actually never seen a lion, apart from pictures in books and Simba from “The Lion King.” For those who live near wildlife parks, there are really no good and bad lions as in that movie. Lions are big, violent and scary creatures that can devour them and their livestock.
As such, Cecil may have been famous only among a small segment of our society, a privileged group that had a stake — either as vendors or consumers — in the lucrative tourism sector and the hunting industry.
The hunting industry is one of the last big secrets in the Zimbabwean economy. And as the furor over Cecil story suggests, it is hideous and corrupt. It operates like a mafia. Wealthy, professional and licensed hunters are glorified poachers who move like a well-drilled army. And many unlicensed poachers operate like a ragtag army of bandits. But the result is the same: They both kill wild animals — hundreds, if not thousands, every day during the unofficial hunting season, from April to November.
Palmer has been maligned for his vile passion for trophies that led to Cecil’s death. But he is hardly alone. There are many hunters like him out there. These are not your average Brit from a council flat in Peckham or Joe the plumber from a working-class American town. These are wealthy fellows, with million-dollar pads in Kensington or Manhattan. They enjoy blood sports. They love killing. And there is an industry that feeds their passion. When they meet at their gentlemen’s clubs, they probably show off their trophies — which is why they are happy enough to be photographed next to their big kills, grinning like idiots.
In Zimbabwe, hunting is a regulated industry but faces very little scrutiny. There is also a racial and class element to all of this, which explains the fight between black politicians and white farmers over wildlife conservancies. These are places where wild animals can live protected from poaching but, unlike national parks, they are private property.
Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
Nigerian author, poet and critic
After Zimbabwe’s independence, when black politicians took over commercial farms, they realized that there was another, perhaps more lucrative sector that was still run exclusively by the whites. So the black politicians decided that they wanted a share of it. One big fight was over Save Conservancy, a large, rich outfit in Masvingo in southeastern Zimbabwe. It appears that the parties eventually reached a mutually beneficial settlement, and soon they were all “eating,” as sharing loot is called in the streets of Harare. The majority of Zimbabweans are oblivious of this economy around wildlife and have no stake in it.
A professional hunter doesn’t simply go out and hunt. He has to get a license from the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA). The country is blessed with lots of wild animals, and while we preserve them, it is important to ensure there is a balance with communities near animal preserves. If animals threatened their livelihood, locals would get angry and kill them all. This is why the government conducts regular censuses and culls animals if they exceed carrying capacity. The hunting industry is justified in this context.
The ZPWMA issues permits to professional local and international hunters. It identifies the game that may be hunted and sets quotas. The permits — or hunting concessions, as they are called — cost a lot. A foreign hunter is required to work with locals and pay fees, thousands of dollars a day to hunt and thousands more to take the trophy after the kill. The meat is shared or sold on the local market. The skins and other parts are sold mostly on the international market.
From those who issue licenses to those who provide guidance and assistance to foreign hunters and transport and logistics providers, there are many rent-seeking opportunities in the industry. Two Zimbabweans — a landowner and professional hunter — arrested in the death of Cecil the lion were released on bail on Wednesday. Zimbabwe is also expected to seek Palmer's extradition from the United States. But it is unlikely that something will happen to them. In fact, small people will probably be sacrificed and pay the price.
Blood diamonds and furs
As the world mourns Cecil, it is important to remember that he is but one of the many victims of a bloodthirsty industry that unites friends and foes across races, cultures, countries and continents but within the lines of wealth and power. Beyond the outrage on social media, journalists should make an attempt to expose the anatomy of the hunting industry in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, including its international dimensions. As with blood diamonds, the market for animal skins and other parts exist because there are people out there who buy them.
Finally, I would like to put in a word for a close friend — a Zimbabwean of the Makoni clan. For years he moaned about the grisly killing of his great ancestor Chief Chingaira, whose head he says was chopped off by the settler army during the war of resistance in the late 19th century and given as a war trophy to Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). (Cecil the lion was named after Rhodes.) My friend insists the head, which he believes is in some British museum, must be returned to his people. The history of Africa and trophy hunting has always been ugly. For my friend and his clan, the issue of trophies is a burden that has weighed on their minds and hearts for generations.
The great African storyteller Chinua Achebe said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” I thought I should tell my own story. And in this case, the tables have turned. Cecil the lion may be dead, but his voice is louder and more persuasive than the hunter’s, who is battered and bruised and has had to find refuge. My people in Zimbabwe would probably say it is the spirit of Cecil fighting back. They would say Cecil was no ordinary lion. They might understand a man who fights and kills a lion that attacks and devours his cow. But a man who lures an old lion and callously shoots it for no offense at all? They would say he is a coward who deserves no respect.