It has been impossible to escape the widespread coverage of the death of Cecil the Lion, a protected feline, by American dentist and recreational hunter Walter Palmer. The tragedy has rightfully gripped the world — but many worry about the lack of awareness this incident has brought to Zimbabwe’s human rights issues.
Robert Mugabe has been Zimbabwe’s president since 1987. He is the world’s oldest national leader.
We spoke to journalist Robin Wright, who wrote a fascinating profile of the African leader for the New Yorker, many years after she interviewed him in 1980. She spoke of his 91st birthday feast, just four months before the famous lion’s death.
“It was quite an opulent affair, reportedly costing more than a million dollars,” she stated. “According to special reports he feasted on a number of wildlife, including elephants killed especially for the occasion.” And that isn’t all: “One of the locals said he was going to present the president with a trophy lion and a trophy crocodile.”
These are symptoms of a larger problem: the “cycle of poverty, poaching and political corruption” throughout Zimbabwe. “We’re outraged by trophy hunting, when in fact the real danger to wildlife across Africa is poaching,” Wright explains.
The southern African country has a long and bloody colonial history. Formerly known as Rhodesia, it achieved independence in 1980 with what many saw as a promising future. But things quickly soured: “One of the most tragic stories in independent Africa is the fact that this was a country that could have been the breadbasket for the entire continent,” Wright says. “It has such rich agricultural lands. But Mugabe came into power and he harassed many of the owners of farms, particularly the whites, and in 2000 began seizing the commercial farms outright and giving them to inexperienced or inept farmers who let the fields rot.”
Zimbabwe’s economy has been in tatters ever since. Inflation reached 80 billion percent, the highest in the world. In 2015, one US dollar could buy 35 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars.
What’s more, 90-95% of the country’s population is un- or underemployed. Most Zimbabweans are thus forced to live off the land: “This creates a cycle where there is deforestation, killing of wildlife, both to feed people but also as poaching because a rhino horn can get up to a quarter million dollars,” Wright explains. Cecil definitely isn’t the only protected animal to lose its life, but many poachers have followed this path as a last resort.
Finally, Mugabe’s presidency is rife with controversy. “Mugabe has held on largely by what are seen as fraudulent tactics, voter rigging and widespread intimidation,” Robin Wright says. “The human rights report that was released in June charged the government with abducting and torturing dissidents.” This includes Itai Dzamara, a journalist and human rights activist who was abducted by suspected State Security agents on March 9 and has not been heard of since.
To many rights activists, the focus on Cecil — overshadowing the dangers faced by Dzamara and other activists — is simply disgusting. How come the world, they ask, does not give the same attention to Zimbabwe? How come the world does not vent its outrage on an authoritarian ruler, rather than a Minnesota dentist?