But the heart of the matter runs deeper. Is poaching always wrong? I’ve travelled extensively in Africa. Having seen many lions close up, shooting one for sport feels like a willful and unnecessary desecration of one of God’s most beautiful creations. But that’s easy to say as a privileged Westerner, here to take a few photos and then head home. Zimbabwe is desperately poor. People told me that unemployment runs as high as 90 percent, and those who manage to get a job don’t make much: the country’s per capita GDP, a rough measure of individual income, sits at around $1,200 CDN per year (in Canada, it’s close to $59,000). “You will never stop subsistence poaching,” says Godfrey. “When people are starving, they will kill to feed their families.” And, Godfrey adds, the big problem isn’t the local poachers. “It’s the guys outside who pay for it. The actual poachers are just pawns in the game.”
The next day, a large-calibre rifle slung across his shoulders, Nicholas Guanje tells me more about the dynamics of African poaching. The rifle is there solely for our protection: Guanje is taking me and a family of friendly Swedes on a “walking safari,” where we delve deep into the wildlife’s natural habitat. On foot. Completely exposed. Before we head out, this veteran guide outlines the rules for our little excursion. We must always walk in a single line, appearing as one to the animals — any more, and they will feel threatened. We will give wildlife a wide berth; we’re the intruders here, and we have come to see, and leave, in peace (and in one piece, I think to myself). And in the event an animal charges, “Do. Not. Run. Running is not an option,” Guanje says emphatically, noting that those who run immediately become prey — and in Zimbabwe, you don’t want to be prey.
Single file, we venture onto the savannah, treading on the sand and watching for wildlife, especially big cats. Cecil’s relatives, including his brother and faithful hunting partner Jericho, still populate these parts. But now, they are being bullied by some new, younger lions who have moved in on the territory since Cecil’s death. Along the way, we learn a lot. Walking safaris slow things down and bring you intimately into the surroundings, removing all barriers. Guanje shows us a bush that can be used as toothpaste; the scat of elephants, impalas and giraffes (which can’t, obviously); and the skull of a gnu, which was killed by a pride of 12 lions. We startle a warthog, which scampers away, then come upon a combination of zebras and wildebeests. They often hang out together for their mutual protection: zebras have excellent binocular vision, and wildebeests an acute sense of smell.
Guanje tells me more about poaching. Underpaid and underappreciated, the rangers at Hwange nonetheless do their best to curb it: at one point, I saw a group of them rattling down a park road in the back of a pickup truck, each of them in camouflage and outfitted with an AK-47. Guanje says that these hardworking rangers, who often meticulously walk the perimeter of the park, camping along the way, have even engaged in firefights. He’s never seen any poachers here, but did spot some during a previous post at Mana Pools National Park. He reported them, and they were apprehended.
Like Godfrey, Guanje notes that the guys at the bottom — the ones doing the actual shooting — don’t get the lion’s share of the cash (pun intended). These on-the-ground mercenaries earn between $2,000 and $5,000 per kill, just a tiny fraction of what their faraway bosses make on the black market for selling rhino horns or elephant ivory. “Imagine you’re from a rural area. You have no prospects. You’re actually desperate. You have no food,” he says, asking me to put the temptation to poach in perspective. But he still doesn’t agree with it. Guanje tells me that he personally knows the professional hunter involved in Cecil’s shooting. The man, whose case is before the courts, is accused of failing to have a proper licence to hunt where he did and of luring Cecil out of the protected area with the smell of meat. “He shouldn’t be doing things like that. He should be an example to young guides coming up through the system.”
Back at the table with Godfrey, the camp manager tells me that, at the end of the day, it’s all a matter of economics. Zimbabwe has suffered immensely from President Robert Mugabe’s disastrous land reforms and the negative press they’ve generated in the West. In a way, Cecil’s death was actually beneficial to Zimbabwe. The controversy shone a spotlight and, in a somewhat counterintuitive fashion, put the country back on the map, reminding people around the world that it exists and remains a valid, and safe, safari destination. In a sense, we’re all responsible here — we all have a role to play, from not buying ivory or rhino horns, to supporting bottom-up projects in Zimbabwe and its neighbours, to actually coming here to explore, enjoy and engage in responsible tourism. That, says Godfrey, would be a wonderful benefit. “We don’t condone hunting,” Godrey adds, “but if we had more visitors looking to shoot just photographs, that would really help.”
Tim Johnson is a Toronto-based travel journalist.