Lions are majestic creatures. With a regal mane and a confident prowl, they lurk through the tall grasses of Africa as kingly creatures. In stuffed animal form, they are cute and cuddly. In animated form, The Lion King has delighted children for over 20 years.
In real form, however, lions are savages- man-eating creatures who can maul and maim with terrifying ferocity.
Like all animals, they hold a place in the ecosystem and should not be hunted to extinction. However, let’s be very, very clear: no matter how adorable a lion may be, they are fierce predators that pose a great risk to many villagers throughout Africa.
As Jimmy Kimmel weeps for Cecil the Lion and emotionally-driven Americans call for the death of the dentist who dared to kill him, one man has spoken up to remind Americans that lions are killers and Zimbabweans do not mourn them when they are killed.
Goodwell Nzou, a native of Zimbabwe and a doctoral student in molecular and cellular biosciences at Wake Forest University, was puzzled when he began receiving messages from friends, offering condolences for the death of Cecil. He wondered who Cecil was, and upon discovering that Cecil was a lion who was killed, the Zimbabwean rejoiced.
In my village in Zimbabwe, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved, or granted an affectionate nickname. They are objects of terror.
When I was 9 years old, a solitary lion prowled villages near my home. After it killed a few chickens, some goats and finally a cow, we were warned to walk to school in groups and stop playing outside. My sisters no longer went alone to the river to collect water or wash dishes; my mother waited for my father and older brothers, armed with machetes, axes and spears, to escort her into the bush to collect firewood.
A week later, my mother gathered me with nine of my siblings to explain that her uncle had been attacked but escaped with nothing more than an injured leg. The lion sucked the life out of the village: No one socialized by fires at night; no one dared stroll over to a neighbor’s homestead.
When the lion was finally killed, no one cared whether its murderer was a local person or a white trophy hunter, whether it was poached or killed legally. We danced and sang about the vanquishing of the fearsome beast and our escape from serious harm.
Recently, a 14-year-old boy in a village not far from mine wasn’t so lucky. Sleeping in his family’s fields, as villagers do to protect crops from the hippos, buffalo and elephants that trample them, he was mauled by a lion and died…
Don’t misunderstand me: For Zimbabweans, wild animals have near-mystical significance. We belong to clans, and each clan claims an animal totem as its mythological ancestor. Mine is Nzou, elephant, and by tradition, I can’t eat elephant meat; it would be akin to eating a relative’s flesh. But our respect for these animals has never kept us from hunting them or allowing them to be hunted. (I’m familiar with dangerous animals; I lost my right leg to a snakebite when I was 11.)…
PETA is calling for the hunter to be hanged. Zimbabwean politicians are accusing the United States of staging Cecil’s killing as a “ploy” to make our country look bad. And Americans who can’t find Zimbabwe on a map are applauding the nation’s demand for the extradition of the dentist, unaware that a baby elephant was reportedly slaughtered for our president’s most recent birthday banquet.
We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people…
And please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.
Nzou makes a point; though I am, admittedly, an animal lover, even I cannot comprehend the level of outrage that has surrounded this media circus. Suddenly, we care so deeply about Africa, but we’ve manifested this political momentum into a conversation about a deadly predator and have forgone conversations about AIDS in Africa, starvation in Africa, warlords, blood diamonds and piracy in Africa.
Further, this tangent has led our national conversation astray from the butcher of babies, the $18 trillion we owe which can never be repaid, a nuclear Iran and the corrupt bargains infesting both Houses of Congress.
Let’s get a grip, people.