Do Zimbabweans really care that much about Cecil the Lion?

Reports from around the the world claim that Cecil was a symbol of national pride, but Zimbabweans seem to have other concerns about the state of their country. 

Paula French via AP
In this image taken from a November 2012 video made available by Paula French, a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil strolls around in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. Zimbabwe's wildlife minister says extradition is being sought for Walter Palmer, the American dentist who shot and killed Cecil.

Animal welfare advocates have described Cecil the Lion, who was killed by a Minnesota dentist in July, as a “national icon” of Zimbabwe. But voices from actual Zimbabweans have begun to suggest that perhaps the lion wasn’t quite the "famous creature” the international press has characterized the animal to be.  

“I don’t share your priorities and I’m afraid I won’t be able to help,” said Trevor Ncube, in a Twitter exchange with CNN’s Emily Smith when asked for an interview about the potential poaching incident. “I have nothing to say about Cecil the Lion. Lots to say about Zim[babwe’s] economic situation” added the chairman of Alpha Media Holdings, the largest independent media organization in Zimbabwe.

While conservationists have voiced outrage, and even sparked a White House petition to extradite Walter James Palmer, who killed the animal in a hunting trip in July, is it possible that the media attention given to Cecil has cumulatively misrepresented the importance of the lion, as a supposed “well-known” “local favorite.”

#SomeoneTellCNN we will not package our lives to please their audience #AfricanNarrative,” tweeted Mr. Ncube  on August 1 in response to the media attention given to Cecil’s death. Numerous replies in the conversation from Zimbabweans questioned when the lions (Cecil and his brother Jericho) even started having names.

"I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt,” Mr. Palmer told Colorado News. “Again, I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion."

“The coverage of Cecil the lion’s story in the Western media is too removed from the lived realities of most Zimbabweans” wrote Alex Magaisa, a former advisor to former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in an opinion article for Al Jazeera America titled "Cecil who?" According to Mr. Magaisa, while the animal has been characterized as a ‘national symbol of pride’ for Zimbabweans, none of his local friends had heard of the animal, and the death of the lion was hardly representative of overall national concerns.

“Zimbabwe is going through serious economic challenges. Most people have pressing needs — food, shelter and employment,” wrote Magaisa, “So forgive us ordinary Zimbabweans if our attention appears not so focused on Cecil.”

Given the current economic circumstances of the African nation, “Cecil may have been famous only among a small segment of our society, a privileged group that had a stake — either as vendors or consumers — in the lucrative tourism sector and the hunting industry,” Magaisa wrote. Zimbabwe makes an estimated $20 million a year on trophy hunting, which represents 3.2 percent of its tourism revenue. However as a whole, the country has suffered from slow economic growth – 95 percent of the working population is employed informally, according to a report by The Economist.

While hunting may not be the chief focus of the average Zimbabwean, in the past century, the lion population in Africa as a whole has shrunk by 82 percent. Currently, there are 500 to 1,680 lions in Zimbabwe, with the vast majority of the animals living in protected areas, according to National Geographic. However, the greatest threats to the lion population are habitat destruction, declining prey populations, poachers, and local villagers killing the animals rather than trophy hunters, reports National Geographic

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