Ban on Zimbabwe hunting unlikely despite backlash over killing Cecil

07 Aug 2015


The trial of the guides who helped an American hunter kill Cecil the lion last month may the most high-profile case against illegal hunting in Zimbabwe's history, but it is hardly the first, nor likely to be the last.

American hunter kill Cecil the lion last monthThe guide Theo Bronkhorst and Walter Palmer, an American dentist who said he killed the lion, have faced an international backlash, as the trial was postponed until 28 September.

But commercial hunting is a staple of Zimbabwe's tourism sector, and those who are now defending Cecil's killers are trying to portray their clients as responsible businessmen, not reckless poachers.

"They did everything legally. They bought permits," said Givemore Muvhiringi, the attorney for Bronkhorst. "Communities benefit from the money that hunting brings across Zimbabwe."

But while Cecil may be sadly gone, his offspring will be okay, one of the main researchers who has studied Zimbabwe's big cats for years said on Wednesday.

Brent Staplekamp, who works for the Hwange Lion Research Project was the last man to have caught and collared Cecil for study, last November. He was also one of the people who confirmed that Cecil's brother, Jericho, is still alive, despite reports to the contrary last weekend, allaying fears that they could become secondary casualties.

Zimbabwean hunters moved to defend their profession, which has never attempted to conceal itself from the public eye.

Many guides have websites with photos of hunters posing alongside their trophy kills - dead lions, leopards and giraffes.

"There's hunting in America. Why shouldn't there be hunting in Africa?" said Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe.

Fundira and other Zimbabwean advocates of hunting say the guides who tracked Cecil knowingly disregarded the rules in luring the lion out of a national park into unprotected territory, an accusation the guides deny.

They favour a punishment for the men but are against any broad measures against the industry at large.

The government has suspended hunting in the area around Hwange National Park, where Cecil lived, but officials have not said how long the ban will last. Meanwhile, expensive hunting trips in other parts of the country continue.

Between 1999 and 2008, hunters visiting Zimbabwe killed 871 lions, according to a study by international biologists and conservationists. Most of the animals were killed legally, but there is a long history of informal hunting there, too, and much of it occurs on private land stocked with wildlife.

Even Muvhiringi acknowledges that, in any other case, the hunters would probably have escaped without suffering any consequences.

"If it were any other lion, it would have gone unreported," he said. Cecil, though, was a recognisable tourist attraction.

Zimbabwean hunters and the safari association say the lion population in the country remains healthy, numbering at more than 2000, allowing for sustainable hunting. But some have questioned the number.

"These are all just guesstimates. We don't know how many are really left," said Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. "We need scientists to investigate how many are actually here."

Other statistics have also come into question.

The safari association says hunting helps support more than 800,000 Zimbabweans.

Indeed, the expeditions and permits are enormously expensive. But many in the country argue that the millions of dollars spent to kill wildlife are funnelled into the hands of a very few - namely, landowners who typically have strong connections to the ruling party.

Meanwhile, the issue has received little attention in Zimbabwe, where economic problems and questions about the regime of 91-year-old Robert Mugabe dominate the public conversation.

"The people here say, 'A lion killed - so what?' " said Rugare Gumbo, a former spokesman for Mugabe's party, who is now a member of the political opposition.

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