Much loved Zimbabwean lion, Cecil, in Zimbabwe on Oct. 21, 2012
Zimbabwe National Parks—AFP/Getty Images
By Alissa Greenberg
July 30, 2015

The death of Cecil the lion at the hands of pilloried dentist Walter Palmer has sparked worldwide outrage, with virtual mobs tanking Palmer’s Yelp ratings, real mobs leaving angry messages at his office, and activists and celebrities alike calling for his metaphorical (or literal) head. But the tragic death of one lion belies a much more widespread and serious problem affecting wildlife in Zimbabwe.

The landlocked, southern African nation is one of the hardest-hit places on the continent when it comes to the killing of big game, both legal and illegal. It is a country where, Slate reports, “hunters exported 49 lion trophies in 2013 alone” and where, since Cecil’s death “it’s likely that at least a dozen other lions have been shot by trophy hunters.”A 2013 study in the journal Public Library of Science estimates that 96 lions were hunted per year between 1996 and 2006 in the country and 43 per year more recently. Lion trophy hunts were banned there in 2005 but allowed again after 2008.

The problem does not stop with lions. Poachers killed between 15 and 20 rhinos in the country in 2014, 60 rhinos in 2013 and 84 (the peak) in 2008. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 60% of the rhino population in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was killed between 2003 and 2005. Now, there are only 750 rhinos left in the entire country — compared to 2000 in the 1980s — making poaching numbers significant enough to merit round-the-clock guard in areas like Kyle Recreation Park in the country’s southern area, the Mail & Guardian reports.

Elephants, too have had a particularly difficult time in recent years. With a population of nearly 80,000, the animal does not benefit from as much protection as other species. In fact, Bloomberg reports, Zimbabwe requested in July 2014 to reverse the U.S. import ban on its ivory and continues to promote an elephant-hunting industry that generates $14 million a year and that it says is necessary to upkeep nature reserves and control the population. But Hwange National Park, where about half of the country’s elephants live (and which Cecil called home for 13 years) was the site of what the Telegraph called “the worst single massacre in southern African for 25 years” in 2013, when hunters after elephant tusks — a set of which can fetch up to $16,000 on the black market across the border in South Africa — poisoned watering holes with cyanide, killing as many as 300 elephants, many with their calves by their sides.

Zimbabwe’s tourist industry is just beginning to rebound, after decades languishing under dictator Robert Mugabe, and a visit may be one of the most effective ways that those up in arms over Cecil the Lion’s death can help avenge him, because tourism shines a spotlight on the activities of poachers. “Poachers don’t like to be seen,” ex-ranger and eco-travel promoter Mark Butcher told the Guardian in 2014. “This is the frontline where the war is being fought and tourists who get here are like eyes and ears against the enemy.”

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