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Cecil the lion had a better life than most people in Zimbabwe

REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Zimbabweans began exchanging old notes of local dollars for U.S. dollars, as President Robert Mugabe's government seeks to officially bury the worthless currency.

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?

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 07/30/2015 - 09:47 am.

    It’s not a zero sum game

    We are capable of caring about the plight of human beings AND animals.

    And we do.

    I’m tired of people trying to guilt/shame us for feeling as we do about Cecil’s death by implying that it somehow then shows that we don’t care about humans.

    Caring is not a zero sum game.

    • Submitted by Matt Becker on 07/30/2015 - 10:53 am.


      Spot on comment.

      I donate a large-ish sum of money to an animal rescue org here in town every year. They do great work, are volunteer run and have provided me with two great dogs.

      Does this mean I don’t care about people?

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/30/2015 - 10:07 am.

    Blame the Cecil reaction on “Lion King”.

    Blame the dentist (!?!–sympathetic character, eh?) who has run afowl of game authorities on multiple occasions, which millions of hunters quite easily have managed to never do, even once. So he fits the villain pattern quite well.

    As for Africa and Zimbabwe, there is a certain fatigue. As has been repeatedly said, the colonial days are over, neo-colonialism is exposed, and what does a white guy know about Africa other than corruption, kleptocracies, despotism, tribalism, nepotism and religious wars ? Black lives matter, but its hard to say that black lives really matter all that much to other blacks in Africa. Zimbabwe has existed in a dire state for decades, along with many other states there. But isn’t it total foolishness to assume the African peoples do not know of different ways–they are as connected as any other people in the world today with a smart-phone. The 60’s and the dissolution of the colonial status are half a century away and our ability to impose order is gone, leaving us only as a provider of refuge when the awfulness of the failed states finally prompts people to flee.

    So it is far easier to mourn a lion than to disentangle the miseries of Africans.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 07/30/2015 - 10:38 am.

    Trophy Hunter is an ugly practice whomever the sponsor…

    The Cecil legacy of victimization and trophy hunters tells but a cameo of greater injustices that didn’t raise a whimper from the maddening crowd?
    The Palmer method of hunting is a gross story..but sad to say, reaches far beyond this cameo of what power and money and arrogance blatantly executed, and is now stirring up a storm.

    But take another look at the sad truth it does reveal in a nation that not too recently recognized the Iraq War was a mistake, yes a Mistake just like Palmer covers his tracks?

    Was it thirty three congressmen changed their minds after the fact; the fact 4, 801 of our military alone were killed; many maimed for life…1,455,590 Iraqis – we’re talking women and children this time around?

    So where’s the wild cry for justice here for all those who killed or signed on the dotted line for others to do the killing? Now they do call it a mistake?

    Who cried loudly for justice against another mistake so belatedly recognized?

    If Cecil the Lion could come back and be given a right to roar on this one I’m sure he would see the irony, the injustice that awakens public furor and in his deep, vocal roar his condemnation against Palmer and trophy hunters everywhere…and add to that primal roar by one great lion so victimized, he would roar at the victimization also of our young men and women we sent into battle in that is now recognized war as “a Mistake” by those who sent them there…33 congressman changed their tune; too late too late I do roar at trophy hunters like Cheney Bush Rumsfeld or the general populace of “patriots” as they do self label their injustices at times; then…now too?

    Trophy hunters are embedded in a society that uses money and power and a certain arrogance of “exceptional” status ; to trophy hunt with a winning team?

    “Go-kick-ass!” maybe that was Palmer’s war cry; or was it old man Bush…but does it matter now? Ah, those”above-the-rest initiatives” to justify our acts of “hunting the enemy” be it a grand and respected lion named Cecil or the war trophies we kill for the sake of… ?

    Palmer is the untamed animal here one could say and do we hold these truths to be self evident, that trophy hunter is a relative term? You tell ’em Cecil, yes sir…ROAR!

  4. Submitted by Moira Heffron on 07/30/2015 - 12:29 pm.

    Letter from Lisa Buschek, MN girl in So. Africa

    Dear Walter James Palmer,

    Thank You for Killing Cecil the Lion.

    I am a Minnesota girl living in Africa. My love for wildlife blossomed in the same woods your children makes smores in. I grew up paddling canoes on Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. I have heard the cry of wolves in the Boundary Waters. I was a life guard on Lake Harriet where we would sometimes be blessed enough to hear the call of loons. I spent my summers at Mt. Olivet Summer Camp “up north,” where I saw my first black bear cubs. I saw my first bald eagle on Lake Minnetonka.

    Now I live in Africa. I am now a filmmaker, and together with my South African husband, I spend a lot of time trying to shed light on the plight of Africa’s animals at the hands of people like you. No work we have ever done with the Discovery Channel or National Geographic has highlighted the problem quite like the killing of Cecil has. This is why I thank you.

    Let me tell you about Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is home to the Shona people. The Shona people are a peaceful farming tribe. They have been easily defeated by many of Africa’s warring tribes through the generations, because they never valued war like other African tribes did. The Shona are a gentle, smiling, proud nation. Zimbabweans are some of the most sincere, well educated, hardworking, friendliest people I have ever met.

    My best friend is from Zimbabwe. The woman who takes care of my two year old son is from Zimbabwe. One of my film directors is from Zimbabwe. None of these people live in Zimbabwe anymore. They have been forced to leave their beautiful homeland because they are unable to find work at home. Robert Mugabe and his cronies have opened the doors to corruption, and to people like you, who pocket thousands of US dollars for your chance to kill a national treasure, while the average Zimbabwean struggles to buy bread.

    Cecil was worth millions of dollars in tourism to Zimbabwe. Honest, hardworking mothers were able to put food on their children’s’ plates because tourists wanted nothing other than to get a glimpse of Cecil. Fathers were able to put their children through school because they had a job washing dishes at a restaurant filled with safari goers desperate to get photos of Cecil’s cubs.
    If you scroll through my Facebook you will see I constantly post facts, figures and pictures in support of African wildlife and animal rights. Many think I am just an airy-fairy, left wing, liberal, animal lover. I might be, but thanks to you, I am not alone. Because of your slaying of this treasured cat, people are talking. People here in southern Africa are always talking about this issue, but now people as far as Eden Prairie are talking, and this is why I thank you.

    The majority of people coming to this great continent and killing these beautiful creatures are American, but they do not represent the whole, nor do you represent the good people of Minnesota. Thanks to you, my friends in Minnesota and Americans alike have context. This is a huge problem and now the people who can really stop it are listening.

    You will have to suffer the consequences of your actions; the loss of a national icon, the cubs who will now likely die, and the Zimbabwean children whose food and education depended on the tourism Cecil generated.

    Cecil’s legacy will live on. We here in Africa will make sure his death is not in vain. And thanks to you, our audience has expanded. Before you, my Southwest High School classmates couldn’t have cared less about my posts on Facebook. Now they are hopefully reading this. You, however, will lose your practice, your money and your ability to live freely. You will live in desperate fear for the rest of your life as Cecil did in the 40 hours between your arrow hit and callous gunshot to his head. Many believe you deserve worse.

    Was it worth it? You say you are sorry for killing Cecil. You are not. You are sorry you got caught. We here do not differentiate. Whether you kill Cecil, or a caged lion bred only to be your trophy, we don’t see the difference, but thankfully, for the sake of our cause, you killed Cecil.

    RIP Old Boy.


    A Girl from Southwest Minneapolis

    • Submitted by elliot rothenberg on 07/31/2015 - 09:55 am.

      Thank you.

      Thank you for the finest and most moving essay I’ve ever read in MinnPost on any subject.

    • Submitted by Rick Kodadek on 07/31/2015 - 12:47 pm.


      Where you “were sometimes blessed to hear the call of loons”? I have never been anyplace in MN except the Twin Cities where you not constantly being blasted by the call of loons. SO that makes you entire essay bogus in my mind. And animal rights? What rights? Like humans they live and die. But they don’t enjoy nor do they understand rights.

      Now I’m not a fan of trophy hunting. This isn’t written to defend the despicable practice of shooting an animal just to shoot one so you can mount it’s head on your wall. But I do hunt. Only animals that I can eat. Most often I only kill animals to put on the table. Sure, living in rural Minnesota I occasionally have to shoot a skunk but that’s about it. While I had livestock I took good care of them and treated them well before shipping them to market. I don’t believe in abusing animals.

      The cubs will only die when male takes over the pride and he kills the cubs as lions do. Male lions are not the nicest animals in the world and if a human male in America treated his family like a lions treats a pride he would be jailed. In other words lions are not the noble beast that people like you try to make them out to be. What about the plight of the people in a country that has one of the shortest life expectancies in the world? The wonderful country that Cecil was killed in?

      Going to make this an issue? I doubt it. I’m on several forums where this topic has been discussed and most comments are about trophy hunting in general and pointing out that the news media is blowing this out of proportion when you consider things like the human suffering in Africa. Most think Abortion is a bigger issue than a lion.

  5. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 07/30/2015 - 11:19 am.

    Thank you

    …For taking the time to write this eloquent message.

  6. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 07/30/2015 - 11:46 am.

    Stop namimg wild animals

    Please stop naming wild animals and giving them human qualities. It is disrespectful to the animal. A male lion is a magnificent creature, when he leads a pride his role is to defend the pride against other male lions and competing predators.

    There is no Cecil. There is a lion that was unethically and probably illegally killed.
    Names are for pets,he was not a pet, calling him by a human (pet) name demeans his existence.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/30/2015 - 12:48 pm.

    Worth noting but…

    This trophy hunting is actually an expression of colonial mindsets that see places like Africa as resource wells from which Westerners are entitled to extract whatever they like. You can’t actually disentangle the fate of Cecil from the fate of the country and continent he lived in. Since this trophy hunting is a residual expression of the colonialism that create the conditions the author is revealing, pitting lions and people against each other might not be the most constructive approach.

  8. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/30/2015 - 05:31 pm.


    Sorry, the story is about a well-loved and protected lion and a trophy-hunting dentist. This attempt to broaden the scope is intellectually dishonest.

    Today’s issue upon which to shed light is the allegation that Dr. Palmer loosed his arrow in the dark, as reported earlier this evening in The Telegraph.

    If you wish to honestly write about the people of Zimbabwe, fine. Please just don’t use Cecil as your lead.

    I also set down my .22 after fearing I had shot a perfectly innocent red fox, which fortunately was quicker than my trigger finger. That was 50 years ago.

    Thank you…

  9. Submitted by Denise Henry on 07/30/2015 - 07:10 pm.

    so many opinions why not one morr

    have a special place in my heart for animals, children, and the elderly. So yep I’m right on the bandwagon about Cecil, as far as naming them it’s not that serious but to differentiate otherwise theyd be lion one lion two etc. This killer poached this animal and killed him with no remorse and only apologized since he has Bern caught. Had this not come to light he wouldn’t have come forward to admit what was done. So with that in mind I cannot find a iota of sympathy for Walter and I hope this does lead to the end of his lavish lifestyle. No more trips or million dollar homes in affluent neighborhoods. I wonder if he loves his hobby so much that it was worth losing all he worked for??I

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