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Death of a king

The writer journeyed to Zimbabwe to inquire about the shooting of a celebrated lion. But he discovered that you can’t separate the scourge of poaching from the desperation of poverty.

By Tim Johnson

I’ll be honest — it really doesn’t look like much. Climbing into a jeep for our late-afternoon safari drive, I had asked my guide to see it, and so we bumped out here, stopping at a seemingly random point. I take in the scene: the land is flat and sun-baked brown, an ebbing sun casts long shadows from a neat line of wooden telephone poles stripped of their function — no cable connects them, the standards themselves bend like aging sentinels, finally blown forward by years of standing against a prevailing wind. And beside them runs a railway track, its geometric perfection — straight, true — set against the wilds around it. In an economy that’s slowed almost to a stop, very few engines now thunder down these tracks, just the occasional passenger train filled with tourists, pausing here for a morning of sightseeing before moving on to Victoria Falls. It was somewhere near this spot that one big cat, long a local celebrity, would cross the tracks and be killed by an arrow, one shot by a dentist from faraway Minnesota. The ensuing global storm of social media would make the death of Cecil the lion a worldwide phenomenon.

I was just inside Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s premiere safari reserve and once home to the now-famous Cecil. Hwange is huge — roughly 15,000 square kilometres — and its eastern edge is marked by those railway tracks. Inside the rails, wildlife is protected from hunting for sport. Outside, animals are quite literally fair game. I was there to find out what really happened last summer and, in a country that’s become one of the poorest in the region, to ask hard questions about trophy hunting, poaching and their impact on the local population.

To my surprise, Ian Godfrey has no small amount of sympathy for the dentist. We sit at a long, wooden table, sweating in the mid-afternoon heat at The Hide, one of Hwange’s most legendary safari camps. This place puts you in the heart of the action: an underground tunnel to a subterranean viewing platform (the namesake “hide”) brings you within a few feet of elephants and buffalo, which make regular trips here to drink from a well-maintained watering hole. Sometimes, things get pretty real: during my three-night stay in one of the luxury tents, a cheetah came right into camp and bagged an antelope, dragging it just outside the camp’s perimeter to slowly consume its prize.

“Cecil was shot not far from here,” says Godfrey, one of the camp’s managers and a longtime Zimbabwe safari veteran, pointing off in the direction of the railway tracks. I ask him about the intensity of the media storm, and why Cecil was so beloved. “We were spoiled. Cecil was right here. He would chase buffalo at the watering hole,” Godfrey remembers. “And on drives, he would lie right next to the jeep. He would even use the bumper as a scratching post. He was the perfect photographic lion.” But noting that trophy hunting is legal in Zimbabwe — and is, in fact, an important source of income for the local economy — Godfrey adds that the “dentist was blameless. He was sold a ruse. He was sold a lion hunt.”

Not surprisingly, the details remain somewhat murky, although most guides I spoke with during my 10 days in Zimbabwe said the same thing. The story I heard most often concerned quotas — that professional hunters are licensed to kill a certain number of animals in carefully prescribed parts of the country. The professional hunter in this case may or may not have purchased the proper paperwork to hunt near Hwange, and his guilt or innocence in court, on whether this was a legal hunt or poaching, will hinge on this highly technical issue. The dentist has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

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.

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