Walter Palmer Alone Is Not to Blame for Cecil the Lion’s Death

Zimbabwe’s government has starved wildlife protection of funds.
July 30, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared in Financial Times on July 30, 2015.

The killing of the majestic lion called Cecil by Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist, has been condemned throughout the world. Mr Palmer, who shot the well‐​known beast after it was lured away from a Zimbabwean game reserve, has expressed regret and gone into hiding.

But he is far from the only one at fault. The government of Zimbabwe has pauperised its nation and starved the country’s wildlife protection units of funds. It has also destroyed property rights and the rule of law.

I visited the Hwange National Park, Cecil’s erstwhile home, in 1995. Even then, Hwange was considered one of Southern Africa’s lesser parks. Infrastructure and accommodation were inferior to others in the region, such as South Africa’s Kruger, Namibia’s Etosha and Botswana’s Chobe. Park officials were unhelpful and sullen. The state of the park and the behaviour of its staff reflected Zimbabwe’s declining fortunes. But things were about to become much worse.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the opposition to Robert Mugabe — the dictator who has misruled the country since 1980 — grew in strength. When he lost a nationwide referendum on a new constitution at the turn of the century, Mugabe realised a defeat in the next election was likely. He decided to destroy the opposition by expropriating the commercial farmers who formed the financial backbone of the opposition movement.

The frontal attack on the property rights of the farmers wiped out much of Zimbabwe’s export earnings and sent destructive ripples throughout the rest of the economy. Land titles became worthless and could not serve as collateral. The banking sector seized up. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe stepped in and unleashed the printing presses. What followed was the second greatest hyperinflation in history, which Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University estimated to have reached 90 sextillion (that is 9 followed by 22 zeroes) per cent in 2008.

Living standards plummeted to levels last seen in the 1950s. Average life expectancy fell from 63 years to 43. Unemployment rose to between 85 per cent and 90 per cent. The cholera outbreak of 2008 that killed thousands of people merely demonstrated the obvious — Zimbabwe was now a failed country.

Amid the human suffering, starving people resorted to killing their pets and wildlife to survive. Some animals were eaten, while others were killed for their skins. In 2008, which marked the nadir of Zimbabwe’s fortunes, 84 rhinos were slaughtered for their horns — an aphrodisiac in Asia. Protection of wildlife gave way to the necessity of human survival. Meanwhile, one local landowner provided a cooked baby elephant for Mr Mugabe’s 91st birthday this year, though reports differ as to whether it was served to the guests.

In the collapsing economy wildlife protection was, quite understandably, at the bottom of the government’s funding priorities. Late last year, Bloomberg reported, Hwange National Park authorities sold about 60 elephants to China, France and the United Arab Emirates. As Geoffreys Matipano, the Director for Conservation at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, explained: “We don’t receive state funding and we rely on selling animals for our day‐​to‐​day operations, we are nowhere near what we want.”

In the economic, political and legal chaos that has come to characterise life in Zimbabwe, Mr Palmer may have been deceived into believing that his act was perfectly legal. Why else would he have paid about $50,000 for Cecil’s killing — in a country where per capita income is a fraction of that sum — and then boast about it on social media?

I confess that I cannot understand the thinking of a man who derives pleasure from the killing of beautiful animals, let alone condone Mr Palmer’s actions. He ought to have known better than to go on a shooting safari in a country with Zimbabwe’s reputation for lawlessness. But there is plenty of blame to go around. Zimbabwe’s wildlife is suffering not just because of the reprehensible actions of individual hunters, but also because of the steady destruction brought about by the economic decline and legal chaos ushered in by a heartless government.

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