Cecil did not die in vain: Rethinking Africa’s wildlife conservation
For much of the world, the killing of Cecil the lion was a moment of tragedy and outrage. But for Zimbabwe and other countries, it presents an opportunity to rethink how conservation can truly benefit African citizens.
In Roman times, Christians were martyred to lions for sport. Now, it seems it’s the lions who are the martyrs – the latest and greatest being Zimbabwe’s Cecil the Lion who has posthumously become a pop culture icon and lion king with a global fan base. Additionally, the involvement of an American in the killing of Cecil has turned it into a set piece drama, complete with hero and villain.
But beyond the moralising rattle about Cecil’s death this July are broader conundrums over big game and big money; the tensions around conservation and the co-existence of humans and animals; and the global diplomacy of tourism. And interestingly, Zimbabwe, so often portrayed as chaos in motion, has actually emerged as an unlikely leader in global wildlife conservation efforts.
Zimbabwe’s wildlife challenges
Despite the polarised situation following the controversial land redistribution process in 2000, which left Zimbabwe’s tourism and wildlife industry hobbled, the country has a strong wildlife and conservation heritage.
The situation has begun to improve in particular in recent years, and Zimbabwe’s conservation lobby, which includes groups such as Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, has long been an influential voice both nationally and internationally.
Zimbabwe is a leading force in a number of international conservation agreements including the ban on rhino poaching, the ivory trade, and broader wildlife conservation initiatives. None of this means that local divisions between conservationists and land-hungry local communities have been resolved or that poaching has stopped, but in recent years there has been a pragmatic compact between tourism, parks and wildlife ministries, safari operators and local communities. With Zimbabwe in dire need of tourist revenue, this has helped the re-stocking of private and state conservancies and the protection of big game.
Post-Cecil developments have boosted the local conservation lobby. The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority has stated that the killing of Cecil was indeed illegal, and the statement also formally banned the hunting of lions, leopards and elephants as well as the use of bows and arrows for hunting. (Anyone wishing to hunt these animals will now require formal approval from the Authority, and parks personnel must be on hand for any hunting.)
It remains to be seen how effectively these measures will be enforced, but these are measures which Zimbabwe’s wildlife conservation groups have long fought for, and they are a first not just for Zimbabwe but for much of the region.
The diplomacy of extradition
Perhaps ironically, it is Americans who have been most vociferous in their condemnation of Cecil’s nemesis Walter Palmer. A Justice for Cecil petition demanding Palmer’s extradition to Zimbabwe has gone global and been sent to the White House. Zimbabwe too has called for him to be extradited.
However, given the often awkward relations between Harare and Washington – not to mention the legal hoops to be circumnavigated – Walker’s extradition to Zimbabwe will not happen anytime soon, if ever. The two countries are signatories to international extradition treaties so Washington will at least have to go through the motions. But Walker’s lawyers will undoubtedly cite Zimbabwe’s human rights issues to bolster their case against his extradition, even though Walker is a multiple offender.
Nevertheless, if the US is perceived to be stonewalling, Zimbabwe could retaliate by refusing to extradite wanted US criminals. US-Zimbabwe relations remain frosty – for example, there was a carefully choreographed non-meeting between Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president and chair of the African Union, and US President Obama at the latter’s recent visit to Addis Ababa – but the Cecil issue will probably be more of an irritant than deal-breaker between the two countries.
Meanwhile, in Walker’s absence, Theo Bronkhurst, the local hunter who actually fired the killing shot, will be Walker’s local proxy – his case is scheduled for trial in September.
Africa and the hunting conundrum
For many, hunting for sport is an iniquitous practice redolent of old time “tag’ em and bag ’em” trophy huntsmen such as Courtney Selous and Ernest Hemingway. But the hunting of Africa’s big game – both legal and illegal – is also big business. Most wildlife tourists to Africa are sightseers, but a substantial minority are also hunters. Professionally operated hunting safaris are a multimillion-dollar industry across Africa, providing employment for thousands.
Some insist that sustainable ranching, which often includes trophy hunting and managed culling, is the best way forwards for wildlife conservation. But others feel that big game hunting is essentially part of a skin trade underworld which includes poaching of Africa’s “Big 5″ of elephants, lions, leopards, rhino and buffalo.
African governments are signatories to various international agreements on hunting and poaching, but the confluence of money, politics and global markets is often irresistible. African political and business elites have for decades been part of the network of poaching and there are still dubious connections, though other African citizens are also driving environmental and conservation movements. Meanwhile, various African countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe are taking leadership roles in treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and other initiatives. South Africa, for instance, will host a key CITES conference in 2016.
Cecil’s killing has sparked a broader convergence of the global animal conservation and animal rights narratives, with African agency. Will it last beyond the current trendiness? Are we seeing a “nu-tourism” which will bolster moral consumerism? Who knows, but the conversations are happening.
Many Africans have been bemused by the fulsome articles about Cecil. Why such a fuss about a lion, they ask? But in the long term, the conservation of Africa’s wildlife is part of a value chain which can and should benefit African citizens. Within Zimbabwe, Cecil’s death has led to a common approach by the state, conservationists and other stakeholders to tighten regulations. It has also raised the profile and garnered international support for wildlife tourism and environmental conservation in Zimbabwe and beyond.
Cecil might have died a gruesome and unnecessary death, but this unexpected opportunity of national and international attention to inculcate ethical tourism should not be wasted. Ethical tourism isn’t just moralistic humbug – it makes good business sense for communities and countries – and greater efforts in driving this could be Cecil’s real legacy.
Knox Chitiyo is associate fellow of the Africa programme at Chatham House.
[Photograph by Matthias Appel.]
The irony of modern conservation thinking is that it has made legal hunting the preserve sport of rich bloodthirsty western individuals whilst Africans who, for millennia, have husbanded and responsibly maintained African wildlife through ancient religious and cultural beliefs are left to starve to death because hunting for food is a crime. The majority of Africans in urban settings cannot afford even the privilege of spectating and shooting(with cameras) their own heritage. How can such an illogical conservation paradigm protect vulnerable animals? The African human population is growing, at the same time the African animal population is only re emerging from the colonial misadventure, and it is crucial to protect African wildlife from new and emerging foreign threats, but this will ever succeed if it’s at the expense of the people that have to bear the runt of living in proximity with the animals, and really, if entertainment hunting is allowed to continue in places where starving Africans killing wild animals for food is still punishable crime, then we have a long way to go before lions(and others) will be safe.
Finally, ranching and wildlife should not go hand in hand. The wild should be left wild. Game ‘ranching’ is a contradictory idea. I do sorely resent seeing foreigners with money buy up my heritage so their friends can fly over and revel in destroying it in the name of “responsible conservation practises” we Africans do not spare the lives of our wildlife so foreigners can come and murder and then pose with them! If Africans can resist the urge to “be one with nature” by killing wild animals for fun so can people from “civilised” climes
Zimbabwe is the private enterprise of the senile, demented thug, Mugabe.
The only folks better off under his tyranny are his henchmen and confidants, but even they, witness Joice Whatshername’s fall from grace recently, are not secure from the vagaries of this idiot king.
In that system, there is no rule of law, no such thing as private property and no independent judiciary. All the safeguards are GONE!
Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been murdered or died because of his tyranny and mismanagement.
Not certain, but possibly upwards of two million Zimbabawe citizens are working in South Africa due to TOTAL ABSENCE OF ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY in the fiefdom of Mugabe!
His avaricious grasp, which stifles production and opportunity is taking the very lifeblood of his nation, the young and creative, the hard working and the ambitious are all exiting for greener pastures.
Pffff, stuff and nonsense. In 5 years you’ll have 100 more lions, just like Cecilâ€¦.but in 5 years, if the senile old pirate is not dead, you’ll have millions of citizens of that once great nation suffering more and more and more!!!!!!!