Africa: Cecil Did Not Die in Vain – Rethinking Africa’s Wildlife Conservation


Knox Chitiyo, African Arguments, Analysis

Date Published

For much of the world, the killing of Cecil the lion was a moment of tragedy and outrage. But for Zimbabwe and other African countries, it presents an opportunity to rethink how conservation can truly benefit their 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 remained 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 allowed for the re-stocking of private and state conservancies and for the protection of big game. Furthermore, 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 Harare, 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 and other African countries 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 at least 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.