Why We Mourn a Lion’s Death

Cecil at Hwange National Paark (2010)
Cecil at Hwange National Paark (2010)

In the aftermath of Cecil’s killing. you may have seen the op piece to the NYT by Goodwell Nzou, a Zimbabwe graduate student at Wake Forest University.

Supposedly, he provides contextual balance, giving us the other side of the story, at least for the average Zimbabwean. For the many of us world wide, however, his version unwittingly says more about the sorry state of conservation in Africa generally and of a latent hostility towards Americans for their hypocrisy and subliminal attack on Zimbabwe culture:

Did all those Americans signing petitions understand that lions actually kill people? That all the talk about Cecil being “beloved” or a “local favorite” was media hype? Did Jimmy Kimmel choke up because Cecil was murdered or because he confused him with Simba from “The Lion King”?


The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation — there were 800 lions legally killed over a decade by well-heeled foreigners who shelled out serious money to prove their prowess — into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus.

We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.

Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.

And please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.

Now there’s truth to some of what Nzou says. How would you and I feel about living in a rural landscape where incursions, sometimes with deadly consequences, are happenstance: crops trampled, cattle killed, humans mauled? Additionally, Zimbabweans must face menacing poverty daily. Losing your crop or cattle is no small thing.

And we certainly need to own up to our sorry carnage of animal resources, whether the eastern mountain lion, passenger pigeon, Eastern elk, sea mink, or Carolina parakeet. We almost succeeded in delivering the same fate to both the buffalo and our national icon, the bald eagle.

But these sad deeds belong to a past redundant in stupidity and cruelty. We pillaged Native American lands, employed slave labor, denied women the vote. It’s simply wrong to impose a modern mindset on a cultural past we’ve shed long ago.

His inference that Americans care more about African wildlife than about Africans, however, is surely a stretch:

We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.

In 2012, American aid to Africa came to nearly $12 billion. Presently, the U. S. contributes aid to 47 African nations and operates 27 missions on the continent. Americans were on the front line in the recent Ebola crisis, contributing massive medical assistance that included medical personnel and army troops. Over the previous decade, we’ve contributed $50 billion under PEPAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief to test and treat africans for HIV. We’ve taken in thousands of African asylum seekers, etc.

On the other hand, when it comes to caring for their own people, it looks to me like educated Zimbabweans are voting with their feet to leave their country when given opportunity. I wonder if Nzou, who’s been in this country for five years, plans to return and help his people with the skills he acquired in America, presumably through American financial resources.  Last year, American universities shelled out $4.7 million for Zimbabwean scholarships.

But returning to the threat of wildlife to rural villages, my understanding through wide reading about Africa indicates that humans, not animals, are the trespassers, with ever increasing numbers encroaching on wilderness areas.

What’s more, Nzou conveniently circumvents the way in which Cecil was killed. He didn’t stalk or stray into any village. On the contrary, he was lured from Hwange National Park, a game sanctuary, by unscrupulous big game interests. Cecil was also wearing a monitoring collar.

Cecil didn’t threaten any villager.

His death was hideous. Wounded by a high powered crossbow, the twelve year old lion bled slowly for forty hours with an embedded arrow in his side, before being tracked, shot, skinned and beheaded.

A park icon, he delighted tourists, thus offering a boost to Zimbabwe’s strapped economy. While he may not have figured in Zimbabwe’s consciousness, he was certainly loved by park visitors from abroad. No media hype here!

Yes, Nzou is right when he says “in Zimbabwe we don’t cry for lions.” That’s because they don’t give a damn about their wildlife generally, whether in Zimbabwe or the rest of Africa, save for a few exceptions. This helps explain the 800 lions killed by Westerners over the last eight years in Zimbabwe alone.

That’s a truly atrocious figure when you learn that this is out of a population of just 1,690 lions in the country to begin with (lionaid.org).

The truth is that Zimbabwe is riddled with corruption and hunting quotas often exceeded. Meanwhile, its wildlife treasure has been not only decimated, but faces extinction.

In this calumny lies the real hypocrisy and telling shame.

Across Africa, the lion population is in deep trouble just like the continent’s beleaguered elephants, experiencing a 42% decline over the last two decades, according to Scientific American.

Now I don’t want to be simplistic like Nzou, who cherry-picks his arguments, nor a teary-eyed romantic.  Properly  managed hunting can actually help shore-up lion numbers, if done in a context of enforced rules.  But in Africa, that’s a big if and, meantime, trophy hunters largely operate with impunity and pose a serious threat to remaining wildlife.

As Cecil’s killing demonstrates, not even the national parks are off limits.

The major threat, however, comes with the ever advancing pastoral creep in African countries, reducing wildlife habitat.

Nzou would have done better to listen to President Robert Mugabe’s own observation on all of this:  “Cecil the lion was yours and you failed to protect him.”

And so we in the West mourn Cecil’s death, and not without reason.









Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: