Hi, my name is Ottilia and I really don't care about Cecil the lion.
I had been thinking it for days. I'd hinted at it in conversation. I'd made some glib remarks on Twitter. I wasn't sure I'd say it "out loud," but then I clicked post and there it was, a simple Facebook status in which I unapologetically stated my feelings about the #CecilTheLion saga playing out in international media.
I naïvely imagined posting it would be like a strange sort of Non-Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where you introduce yourself, you state your problem, and everyone says "hi" back. Nothing more. No judgment passed. After all, we're all fighting some demon or other at this gathering. It was many things, but it wasn't a therapeutic release. It wasn't an admission of wrongdoing. I stated my truth and that was that...
But it wasn't. It isn't.
The killing of Cecil the Lion, tragic as it might be to some (perhaps many?), has laid bare some key issues, warranting further discussion. For Zimbabweans moreso perhaps, since, after all, it's "our" beloved lion that was killed. We should care. We should be livid. We should be something. Anything.
The First Issue Is Cecil's Killing
Hunting is not new in Zimbabwe. Neither is poaching. The former is legal. The latter isn't.
For a layperson, at least where wild animals are concerned, the two are the same bar that hunting is... well... somehow... legal and well... mostly rich people can do it. Hunting is the remit of trophy seekers and "conservationists" who can hunt within the scope of the law.
The recalcitrant lion (and leopard, and and and) killer, Walter Palmer, has already come out to "clear his name." Hunting is his hobby, you see. He takes it very seriously. He made sure -- so he says -- that the hunt was "above board." He even paid. In his corner are some who have argued that the good Mr. Palmer must have been acting "within the law" of Zimbabwe (or at least, believed he was). At the same time, some are quick to point out that money exchanged hands and some Zimbabweans obviously benefited. That must make it all OK.
If only it were that simple.
The biggest source of income, according to Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ) president, Emmanuel Fundira, is money accrued from trophy-hunting. Americans -- like the scaly Mr. Palmer -- make up the majority of trophy hunters in Zimbabwe.
In response to my Facebook status, Sasha Pizhamkin aptly pointed out:
...having exterminated most of their own wildlife, rich Americans think it's ok to go around the world killing endangered animals for sport, because they pay big money for it. This happens everywhere, not just Zim. It's this idea that money can buy you a sense of entitlement and impunity. This transcends the human vs animal rights debate. It's the same sense of entitlement that allows rich tourists to desecrate cultural heritage, companies to deforest entire regions, governments to dictate political and economic policy of other states. I've never heard of Cecil before but I've met many Walter Palmers!
Zimbabweans know this all too well. As do most Africans.
The unbridled abuse of systems through capital is not new. And, let's be honest, so too the bridled abuse. Exploitative enterprise is as much our present as it is our past, and as it will be our future (if we are not careful).
In defending a paid hunt as "legitimate" many completely miss the power dynamics and ignore push (and pull) factors that possibly drove those involved to accept Walter's loot and thus let him loot. It is no secret that Zimbabwe's economy is ailing. That people within most enterprises barely earn what is needed to make ends meet. And as the world mourns Cecil, 6,000 Zimbabweans just lost their jobs.
What many might not know is that Zimbabwe faces a large conservation challenge that the country is struggling to curb. In times of crisis, protecting the environment and its dwellers rarely tops lists. "Hunting" has been used as a source of revenue to keep conservation going. Counter-intuitive? Perhaps. Necessary? Sadly.
With dwindling revenue from hunting it is estimated that the livelihoods of 800,000 families that directly depend on wildlife exploitation are under threat.
Walter Palmer, for his cardinal sin of killing a "beloved" beast, must now face the music. But the music that he may face will reveal more about systems that have allowed for men like him to recklessly do as they please. It won't be the music some hope for. He won't, as Piers Morgan hopes, be crucified or burned at a stake.
It is also unlikely that he will face any real retribution. For starters, he is already home in Minnesota and if prosecuted, it would likely be in the U.S. Pragmatically, the consequences for Palmer won't be as dire as the outrage suggests. At best, he'll have to pay a fine -- in Zimbabwe, the fine for poaching a lion is $5,000 (and we already know he's flush with cash). At worst, less people may want him to polish their pearly whites for the next two months. Maybe weeks.
And Then There's the Issue of Forgetting People
Americans (and others from elsewhere... *stares at Piers and my social media feeds*) have been tripping over themselves to show just how appalled they are that a lion -- a lion with a name -- was killed savagely somewhere in deep dark Africa. In his death, Cecil has become a martyr and everyone is mourning the death of what started as "One of Hwange national park's iconic lions" and quickly became "Africa's most loved Lion" (I can't make this up!).
Few -- if any -- of these people rallying for ol' Cecil have shown their public concern and care for Zimbabweans (beyond stifled jokes about the country being mismanaged and some such "woe is Zimbabwe and her faceless people" type jibes). I'm not asking that they do, but that they don't is quite telling.
Amidst all the white noise, it's become apparent to me that a lion, as you must already know, is more valuable than any Zimbabwean. Myself included.
But before I show myself out, let me say this again for the rabble-rousers at the back, as a Zimbabwean:
- I had no idea there was a Cecil before his killing became news (and I'm not alone there).
On a socio-cultural and personal level, as a MaSibanda (the title given to women from my kin because our family totem is the lion -- the loud roaring one to be exact) Cecil was in many ways my beloved. Lions bear a special significance to me. But the furor isn't rooted in my people's totem and the related beliefs. That has been ignored.
This post originally appeared on Conversation Zimbabwe. The views expressed are those of the author.