The death of Cecil the lion has generated an unprecedented global conversation around sport hunting. Beneath the media coverage of this incident is the muted subtext of Zimbabwe’s tourism and corruption; the coloniality of the safari experience and the irony in the name of the ‘famous’ lion, which could have been possibly a celebration of the conquering millionnaire colonialist Cecil John Rhodes whose influence still lingers in the country he once named after himself.
The details of the lion’s death have outraged nature enthusiasts and conservationists around the world who are troubled by wealthy big game hunters like Walter Plamer who pay tens of thousands of dollars for licenses to kill protected animals for trophies and sport.
Many Zimbabweans have expressed ignorance of #CeciltheLion even though he died in their backyard. Their first encounter with him has been on social media. It is not surprising. The only time I have been to Hwange National Park, Cecil’s former home, was as a schoolboy. I have never been since. My primary school annually organised trips for upper grades to selected touristy places around the country. For my year, it was the Hwange National Park and the majestic Victoria Falls. It was exciting to board the ZUPCO bus for a week away from home in our first attempt at going for a safari experience.
Safari and wildlife is not typically how the majority of black Zimbabweans holiday. Most people live below the poverty datum line and never get to travel around their own country in their lifetimes. The absurdity of Cecil’s death is that not far from the national park where he was callously murdered in a 40 hour ordeal, his predatory cousins have been terrorising villagers and their livestock. This human-animal conflict, a huge concern, in Matebeleland North has just been hushed up from Cecil’s narrative. There is no denying that he was a beautiful specimen whose death has provoked necessary debate and discussion.
For Walter Palmer to be able to kill Cecil, it required an elaborate scheme, that involved local professional hunters whom he is alleged to have paid at least $55 000. Cecil was lured out of the park with a dead animal tied to a vehicle and then shot with a crossbow but did not die as he managed to drag himself away. He was found 40 hours later and finally put out of his misery with a gun.
Ideally legal trophy hunting is supposed to raise money for conservation efforts, according to some international treaties. But corruption often siphons off the funds as is suspected in this case. There has been widespread concern about increasing illegal hunting of wildlife in most conservation areas in Zimbabwe.
For Palmer, a successful career dentist in America, his extracurricular activities may have just blacklisted him in the jury of public opinion. Photographs of him with big game he has killed in the past confirmed his sport and became viral talking points. Whether he does sport hunting to boost his ego or as a status symbol, his latest exploit may have just damaged his public reputation.
The reaction of the world is proof that trophy hunting is controversial, especially in the face of endangered species going extinct. An estimated 200 000 lions used to roam across Africa but now there are less than 30 000, and they are now considered highly vulnerable. It seems Cecil’s legacy in death has been to highlight the plight of his kind.
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