Compared to many of the human residents of Zimbabwe, Cecil the lion had a pretty good life.
By now, just about everyone — including the Twin Cities dentist who shot him — is sorry that the beloved cat was killed July 1 in a big game safari gone very wrong.
Count me among those who don’t get the allure of this kind of hunting. (Full disclosure: My hunting career ended when I came across a rabbit in my Wisconsin back yard and took aim with the family .22. It looked at me; I looked back – and couldn’t pull the trigger. That was 45 years ago.)
But unless I’ve missed it, no one seems outraged – or particularly aware, for that matter – of the picture surrounding this story. Zimbabwe is one of the worst places on Earth to live. And the responsibility for that is due to one man, President Robert Mugabe.
Here are a few statistics to help put things into perspective.
The U.N. Development Program ranks countries on a Human Development Index, which takes into account three general factors: the opportunity to live a “long and healthy life,” access to knowledge and ability to achieve a decent standard of living.
In 2012, Zimbabwe ranked 172nd out of 187 countries and territories.
Life expectancy is about 52 years — lower than it was in 1980. It has rebounded since the middle of the last decade, when it fell into the mid-40s — one of the lowest, if not the lowest in the world.
(Full disclosure Part II: I was involved in planning stories about the dismal state of Zimbabwe by Los Angeles Times Johannesburg Bureau Chief Robyn Dixon that won a 2008 Robert F. Kennedy journalism award. Things haven’t gotten much better since then.)
According to the U.N. agency coordinating the global fight against HIV/AIDS, there are more than half a million AIDS orphans among Zimbabwe’s roughly 15 million people. Almost 1.7 million of people between the ages of 15 and 49 are living with the disease.
Then, there’s the economy. In 2008, inflation hit 500 billion percent, and according to this report, the biggest bill printed — with a value of 100 trillion Zimbabwe dollars — wasn’t enough to get you to work and back on the bus for a week. The next year the country started using foreign currencies instead of its own.
Last month, Zimbabweans were allowed to start exchanging local currency they still held in bank accounts for a few U.S. dollars. Very few. A bank balance of 175 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars will get you $5 U.S.
It didn’t have to be like this. Zimbabwe, which was known as Rhodesia when it was under white minority rule, has good farmland, natural resources and educated people.
It also has a 91-year-old leader who is stuck in the past, but refuses to ease his grip on power. Mugabe was leader of one of the main rebel groups fighting for majority rule. The problem is that, 35 years after winning that war, he’s still in power – and he still sees the world through a prism of anti-colonialism. He claims Western governments – particularly Britain – are trying to remove him.
Now, he appears to be intent on passing power to his wife (and former secretary), Grace.
Facing all this trouble, it’s true that bringing in high-rolling big-game hunters is one way Zimbabwe can make some desperately needed money.
For years, there has been an interesting debate about whether hunting can be justified if the fees fund conservation efforts that poor African governments wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Or whether fewer, wealthier visitors of this type actually mean less wear-and-tear on a fragile environment.
It’s hard to imagine that much of the money foreign hunters shell out in Zimbabwe trickles down very far. And then, there’s what happened to Cecil, despite the fact he had protected status in Hwange National Park.
We have limited ability to make Zimbabwe a better place. That’s almost certainly not what motivates most hunters, or their outraged critics. And the urge to protect endangered wildlife is commendable.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if we cared as much about fellow human beings?