Most Zimbabweans Have Never Seen A Lion

Most Zimbabweans have never seen the wildlife that our government charges wealthy foreigners top dollar to kill.

An earlier version of this essay ran on Alex Magaisa's personal website.

Not since Simba became the Lion King has a big cat captured the world’s imagination so completely. The killing of Cecil the lion has outraged all decent people around the world. The perpetrator, an American dentist called Walter Palmer, has closed his practice and gone underground.

I understand the outrage over this sordid act. 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 defenseless little birds. I hate cruelty to wild creatures.

But there are a few things that need to be said. As a Zimbabwean, I often say we don’t write our stories often enough. We leave the stories to be written by others, and when we read them we complain that our stories are not being told properly. So, I figured, why not put my money where my mouth is and express my own version of events.

The Cecil tragedy has put Zimbabwe in the news — and for once the big villain is an American dentist, not the usual warlords or our authoritarian president Robert Mugabe. But when I read about a famous and much-loved lion called Cecil, I was a bit surprised. I didn’t know Cecil or that he was our most famous lion. I remembered Maswerasei, a lion that caused terror in Hurungwe, a rural area, in the late '80s. Myths built up around Maswerasei. His name came from his reputation for showing up around sunset, the time when people traditionally ask “Maswerasei?” (How has your day been?) 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 — a fairly big circle. None of them knew Cecil. His fame hadn’t reached them, either. They didn’t know that he was, as one British paper said, “a symbol of Zimbabwe.”

Many were outraged about Cecil's death, but they were also conflicted about the representation of Zimbabwe in the international news stories about it. The country is going through serious economic challenges, and, understandably, most people have pressing needs on their minds, including jobs. Thousands have been laid off since a recent Supreme Court judgment upheld employers’ right to terminate workers' contracts without layoff benefits a couple weeks ago. A democracy activist called Itai Dzamara has been missing for more than four months — not that you would know it from international media 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.

On the contrary, I don’t know any other culture that identifies itself with wild animals like Zimbabweans. Our society is divided into clans, which are named for animals: Shumba (Lion), Hove (Fish), Mhofu (Eland), Soko/Mukanya (Monkey/Baboon). The clans are foremost a form of identity and a protection against inbreeding, as clan members are traditionally prohibited from marrying each other. But they’re also a conservation technique. Clan members are not allowed to hunt or eat the meat of their totemic animals because, in effect, they would be killing or eating their 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 overexploitation.

In other words, the manner in which the story has been presented by international media is far removed from the lived realities of most of the local people. That’s partially because of the skewed economics of tourism in Zimbabwe. Big game hunting is mired in elitism beyond the reach of ordinary Zimbabweans. Local tourism, meanwhile, is very weak. The economy is stagnant, and only a privileged few have disposable income.

Most Zimbabweans have never actually seen a lion apart from pictures in a book.

Apart from a few, Zimbabweans generally don’t go on vacation to tourist facilities with wild animal habitats. If they do, it’s an organized school trip for kids or their company has a chalet or lodge that senior employees book to spend a few days at during the year. Sometimes an NGO will organize a workshop at a wildlife resort and participants will be taken on a game drive for “refreshment.”

Those are the few ways a small number of Zimbabweans get to see lions, elephants, giraffes, 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, most Zimbabweans have never actually seen a lion apart from pictures in a book. For people who live near wildlife parks, there are no good lions, bad lions, or favorite lions. There are only the lions that eat their livestock. Locals will generally run for safety if they see one.

So if Cecil was famous, it was to a privileged segment of society, both local and international, that has a stake, either as vendors or as consumers, in the very lucrative tourist industry and the related, though lesser-known, hunting industry. In fact, the hunting industry is one of the last big secrets in the Zimbabwean economy.

Here's how it ostensibly works: We are blessed with lots of wild animals in Zimbabwe, and in addition to preserving them, it is also important to ensure that the animal populations do not harm nearby human communities. But, without regulation, poachers will hunt species into extinction. So the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management is in charge of these matters. The authorities do a regular census of animals and cull them if they exceed the carrying capacity. This is the basis upon which the hunting industry is justified. The authorities issue permits to professional hunters, local and international, that identify the game that can be hunted and set the quotas of how many can be killed.

The problem is that the government-issued permits are so expensive only a few can afford them. Wealthy professional hunters — who are mostly white and international — are like a well-drilled army, whereas poachers are like a ragtag army of bandits. But their end result is the same — they kill wild animals.

Cecil is a victim of a blood industry that unites foes across countries —  but within the confines of wealth and power.

The race and class distinction between hunters and poachers explains, in part, the fight between black politicians and white farmers over wildlife conservancies. Conservancies are places where wild animals have the liberty to live under protection from poaching. But unlike preservation-minded national parks, conservancies are private property. They claim to use the revenue from trophy hunting to offset the costs of protecting endangered species from unregulated poaching. After black politicians took over (and exhausted) commercial farms, they realized there was another, perhaps more lucrative industry still occupied almost exclusively by the whites, and they also wanted a share of it, by hook or crook.

Recently, black politicians and white hunters clashed over the indigenization of a big, rich conservancy in Masvingo called the Savé Valley Conservancy. After decades in private (white) hands, its ranches were recently forced into public partnerships by the Mugabe regime, with political and military leaders controlling the hunting permits. All this means there are many rent-seeking opportunities in the industry. Those who issue licenses, those who guide foreign hunters, transportation, logistics — everyone from top to bottom has an opportunity to extract rents from the other, so there is a huge potential for government corruption.

Government ministers might shout and scream during the day about white people, Europeans and Americans, but during the night, they are their hunting partners. Meanwhile, the majority of ordinary Zimbabweans are oblivious to this rich economy around wildlife. When things happen to animals, they are quite distant.

So, while the world mourns Cecil the lion, do remember that Cecil is not a symbol of Zimbabwe. He’s just one victim of a 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. That would make a really good story.