Reflections on our Cecil, the Zimbabwean Lion

Alex Magaisa Correspondent
Cecil the lion is trending on social media and in international media. Not since Simba, of The Lion King fame, has a lion captured the world’s imagination in this way. His killing has outraged all decent people around the world. The perpetrator, an American dentist called Walter Palmer, has been the subject of much criticism on social media and elsewhere.

People are upset and angry at his cruel and sordid act. I understand it. I love animals. When I was a small boy herding cattle with my friends back in the village, we fought boys from another village when we found them killing defenceless little birds. I hate cruelty to wild creatures.

But there are a few things that need to be said. As a Zimbabwean, I usually say we don’t write our stories often enough. We leave them to be written by others and when we read we complain that our stories are not being told properly. So, I thought, let me wear my hat of home and write a bit about this story — express my own version of events.

For one thing, Cecil’s tragedy has put us in the news, only this time the big villain is an American dentist, not the usual characters. But when I read about a famous and much-loved lion called Cecil, and saw the wide coverage on the international news networks, I was a bit surprised because I did not know Cecil or that he was one of our most famous lions. I remembered Maswerasei, a lion that caused terror in Hurungwe, a rural area in the late 80s. Myths were built around Maswerasei, whose name owed to the story that he only appeared towards sunset, the time when people traditionally ask Maswerasei (How has your day been?) when they meet. Maswerasei was the notorious lion that I knew. Cecil was new to me.

So I did a quick check around my circle of friends and family in Zimbabwe — which is a fairly big circle. None of them knew Cecil. His fame had not reached them, too. They did not know that he was, as one British paper said, “a symbol of Zimbabwe”.

On social media, there was mixed reaction reflecting similar conflicting sentiments. Many were outraged, but many weren’t sure, too about the representations of the story in the international media. The country is going through serious economic challenges, and quite understandably, most people have pressing needs on their minds, such as food, shelter and jobs. Thousands have been laid off work since a recent Supreme Court judgment a couple of weeks ago. An activist called Itai Dzamara has been missing for more than four months and some people worry that the story of this human being has not received as much international attention. So forgive them, if their attention is not as much focused on Cecil’s sad demise. It’s not that they don’t get it, or that they don’t care for animals, no.

In fact, I don’t know if there is any other culture, as that among Zimbabweans, whereby humans identify themselves with wild animals. Our clan names, Shumba (Lion), Hove (Fish), Mhofu (Eland), Soko/Mukanya (Monkey/Baboon) are all references to animals, with which clans are identified. I, for example, am of the Hove (fish) totem — the price that I must pay, alongside my clan members, is that I do not eat fish. It is the same with other totems. You don’t eat or kill the animal 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. Society rationed who ate what from the wild in order to avoid over-exploitation. So, we have always valued wild animals.

The point here is not to dismiss or trivialise Cecil’s tragedy, no. It is to say that, in fact, the manner in which the story has been presented by international media seems somewhat far removed from the lived realities of most of the local people. The reason for this also lies in the skewed economics around tourism and hunting in Zimbabwe. It is mired in elitism and beyond the reach of many ordinary Zimbabweans. Local tourism is very weak. The economy is stagnant and only a privileged few have disposable income.

Apart from a few, Zimbabweans generally don’t go on holiday to a tourist facility such as a national park for wild animals. If they do, it’s probably an organised school trip for kids or their company has a chalet or lodge, where senior employees book to spend a few days during the year. The other facility is if a non-governmental organisation organises a workshop at one of the wildlife resorts and as part of “refreshment” participants are taken on a game-drive around the resort.

Those are the few ways by which a lot of Zimbabweans have got to see lions, elephants, giraffe and other wild animals. Our holidays, traditionally, consist of going down to the rural village, to spend time with the old folks and escape the routine of city life, if only for a few days. Contrary to some perceptions of Africa, people don’t actually live with wild animals. Most Zimbabweans have actually never seen a lion apart from pictures in a book or Simba from Lion King.

For those who live near wildlife parks, there are really no good and bad lions as in The Lion King, though — lions eat their livestock and locals will generally run for safety if they see one.

But this is not to say Cecil was not famous, no. He probably was, but only to a segment of society, a privileged segment — both local and international, that have a stake, either as vendors or as consumers, in the very lucrative tourist industry and another related, but lesser-known industry, called the hunting industry. And it is this that has actually prompted me to write this piece — because the hunting industry is one of the last big secrets in the Zimbabwean economy and it looks hideous and corrupt as the story of Cecil indicates.

It’s a shame that some sad American dentist has killed (some have gone so far as to say “murdered”) Cecil who, we now know, was much-loved but the truth is hundreds, if not thousands, of animals are killed every day during the hunting season. Yes, there is actually a hunting season!

The point is, there is a hunting industry out there and it is very lucrative. I suspect it operates like a cartel and there is a Mafioso element to it. Professional hunters are quite simply glorified poachers. The difference is professional hunters are licenced while poachers are unlicenced. Wealthy professional hunters are like a well-drilled army whereas poachers are like a rag-tag army of bandits. But their end result is the same — they kill wild animals.

This authorisation regime explains why the sad American dentist sees nothing wrong with what he did. To be fair, he probably went through all the motions, legal and extra-legal, in order to satisfy his vile passion. But he is not alone. And this wouldn’t be the first time that he did it. There are many like him out there. They are not your average Brit from a council flat in Peckham, no. These are wealthy fellows, with million-dollar pads in Kensington, who are probably also lobbying the British government to bring back fox-hunting.

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 kill, grinning like idiots. The hunting industry would probably not survive if they didn’t exist.

In Zimbabwe, hunting is a regulated industry but there is very little scrutiny. There is a racial and class element to it as well which explains the fight between black politicians and white farmers over wildlife conservancies.

These are places where wild animals have the liberty to live under protection from poaching but unlike national parks, they are private property.

When the black politicians took over commercial farms and exhausted them, they realised, there was another, perhaps more lucrative area which was still occupied almost exclusively by the whites. So the black politicians decided they also wanted a share of it — by hook or crook. One big fight was over a big and rich conservancy in Masvingo called the Save Conservancy. I am not sure what has happened there — they probably reached a mutually beneficial settlement, so that everybody is “eating” as sharing loot is called in the streets of Harare. The point is, the majority of ordinary Zimbabweans are oblivious of this rich economy around wildlife and when things happen to animals, they are quite distant.

But there is also a lot of corruption around hunting. A professional hunter or glorified poacher doesn’t just go out and hunt, no. He has to get a licence. That licence is issued by Government authorities. There is a Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management which is in charge of these matters. We are blessed with lots of wild animals in Zimbabwe and while we preserve them, it is also important to ensure there is a balance with communities around where they live. If animals threaten human communities, the communities get angry and they kill them. So a win-win situation is needed. This is why the authorities do a regular census of animals and cull them if they exceed the carrying capacity. It is in this context that hunting is supposed to take place. Indeed, this is the basis upon which the hunting industry is justified.

The authorities issue permits to professional hunters — local and international. They identify the game that can be hunted and set the quotas. It costs a lot of money to get these permits and only a few can afford. I suspect a foreign hunter is required to work with a local one. They pay huge fees. The meat is shared or sold on the local market. I recall one image that did the rounds a few years ago, of a whole community stampeding over the carcass of a slain elephant. International media carried those images but on that occasion it was to feed the story that poor Zimbabweans were starving to the extent that they were devouring dead elephants. One local professional hunter I met at a Harare pub a few years ago offered buffalo meat but I wasn’t keen. The skins and other parts that can be preserved are also sold mostly on the international market.

All this means there are many rent-seeking opportunities in this industry. Those who issue licences, those who provide guidance and assistance to foreign hunters, those who provide transport and logistics, etc. Everyone from top to bottom has an opportunity to extract rents from the other. Those who are into it make a lot of money. There is a huge amount of corruption and skulduggery that goes on in that industry. This probably why not much will happen to the Dentist. Or to the big people behind what happened. The small people will probably be sacrificed and will pay the price. But there will be more Palmers and more Cecil’s in future.

All this, of course, is fed by a wealthy international market. There are huge international conferences and fairs in places like Las Vegas — on hunting. Big people in Zimbabwe are involved in this lucrative hunting industry — Government Ministers, their relatives and their friends. These Government people might shout and scream during the day about white people, Europeans and Americans but during the night, they are their hunting partners. This is an industry of a few people — fuelled by the passion of glorified poachers, also called professional hunters, from Europe, America and Asia and the voracious appetite for wealth by the powerful local lords.

So, while the world mourns Cecil the lion, do remember that Cecil is just but one victim in a horrible blood industry that unites friends and foes alike — across countries and continents but within the confined lines of wealth and power. A challenge to journalists — local and international — is to expose the anatomy of the hunting industry — in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya or elsewhere, complete with its international dimensions. Now that would make a really good story and would expose the rot that goes on in that industry.

You might be reading this from a hotel lobby or office or lounge whose walls are adorned with heads of stuffed animals. Or you might have seen them before and remarked at how lovely they looked. What you may never have asked is where they came from and how they got to be there. Point is, there are many Cecil’s out there — both past and present and unless you deal with the ills of the industry, there will certainly be many more in future.

And while we are at it, I should also put in a word for a friend. He is of the Makoni clan. For years he has moaned about the grisly killing of his great ancestor — Chief Chingaira, whose head he says was chopped by the settler army and given, ironically, to Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of present-day Zimbabwe, as a war trophy sometime in the late 19th century. He insists the head, which he believes is in some British museum, must be returned home to its people.


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