“In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions”

Cecil the Lion 2
Cecil the Lion.

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. -Goodwell Nzou

In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions,” by Goodwell Nzou, is an op-ed featured in the New York Times (dated August 5, 2015; page A19 in print). Nzou’s point of view is that of a Zimbabwean man trying to understand American outrage for the illegal [trophy] hunting of Cecil the Lion. His feature portrays African wildlife, lions specifically, as sources of terror not coexistent with native villagers (save for their “mystical significance” in clan totems).

As an animal activist and conservation proponent, I disagree with Nzou’s assertion that Americans have romanticized visions of African wildlife and that we don’t care about the lives of African people. How many programs or organizations have American backing to combat malaria, HIV/AIDs, starvation, genital mutilation, sex trafficking and inequality? How many programs or organizations have American backing to conserve wildlife and minimize human-animal conflict? What about programs that provide clean drinking water or education?

My point is, there are countless organizations working to better the lives of people and wildlife in Africa, so I take great exception to claims that Americans care less about human lives. Why, in his view, must Americans have only a singular and narrow focus? Nzou, a biosciences doctoral student at Wake Forest University, should understand and respect the importance of biodiversity and the importance of an individual to an ecosystem. He should also recognize that the human condition is capable of limitless compassion.

Cecil the Lion. Are lions a "fearsome beast?"
Cecil the Lion. Are lions a “fearsome beast?”

Perhaps this is my response to the vilification of wild animals, which is an all-too-present commentary in the discussion about our coexistence with wildlife. My frustration may even be a response to the elitism of his beliefs, which suggest there is more value to human life. Nzou details the terrors of lions throughout his life – and how when one was “murdered,” he and his village, “…danced and sang about the vanquishing of the fearsome beast and our escape from serious harm.”

To me, this is disgusting. I don’t believe in the “vanquishing” of a fearsome beast. I don’t condone the celebration of senseless killing because supposed intellectually superior beings can’t adapt, find ways to coexist or defend themselves. Nzou references the mauling of a 14 year-old who was watching over his family’s crops. The boy had fallen asleep in the field and was ultimately the victim of a lion attack. For the boy, his family and his village, the death certainly must have been tragic – and it’s nothing I’d wish upon anyone ever, but to vilify the lion for its action? I disagree.

Lions and other African wildlife are acting naturally when they interact with humans (grazing on crops, predatory behaviors, etc.). They don’t know the boundaries of conservation areas or process that their actions may be wrong. This is an unfortunate occurrence brought on by habitat destruction and human population growth. We as people are capable of so much more and therefore, responsible for equally as much.

Nzou does present a telling statement that summarizes his valuation of human life over a life like Cecil’s:

Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles. – Nzou

I can’t refute his claims about mountain lions in the United States, because Americans have done what he’s said – but I can disagree with his notions of ownership and justification. The African animals don’t belong to African nations or people – they belong to themselves and nature; they are part of our Earth and diverse ecosystems. The same can be said about the animals found on every other continent. We do not own them – they are their own species with just as much right to life as we have. To justify their population declines or deaths by referencing other wrongs across the world is asinine. Every person on Earth has an obligation to speak out against injustice, especially against animals.

Animals form complex social bonds and are capable of feeling. They endure life with their own concepts of hardship and success; joy and sorrow; life and death. They communicate in ways we can only imagine – they feel – and they have individual personalities. The only difference between them and us? They likely don’t kill for sport – or rejoice at the vanquishing of the beast (man). Their motivations are for survival, contrary to ours, which range from survival to profit and security.

When I turned on the news and discovered that the messages were about a lion killed by an American dentist, the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One lion fewer to menace families like mine. -Nzou

One lion fewer. Yes, Cecil the Lion was just one lion – but how many more individuals can life afford to lose? How many more until one lion is the last lion?

To Goodwell Nzou, I offer you this: Animals were not designed to be trophies. They were not designed to be killed for sport – to be manipulated into death. They were not designed to be the cause for your celebration at their murder. They have never acted with the cruel, manipulative or malicious intentions mankind sometimes has; they act for survival. Wildlife is not yours to condemn, nor is it yours to own. As a scientist, I expect you to know better.

One Comment

  1. Joe Main says:

    Well said, Mr. James!! I understand Goodwill Nzou and the inborn fear and anger for the lion of his childhood. It has nothing to do with education or intelligence. It is inherent. We in America have our own inherent fears and angers for certain wild life. For example, why do we panic and kill the harmless and beneficial black snake? It is no danger to us at all. Lions were a real danger for Goodwill Nzou’s family. The international anger over the killing of Cecil is that this lion posed no danger to anyone. It was accustomed to people and semi-tame. It was killed for thrills and a trophy. Very different than killing for survival. That is what Goodwill Nzou has not been able to grasp. His emotions are a blind.

    Maybe, just maybe, the killing of Cecil the lion will highlight the value of wild life everywhere. Maybe Cecil’s death will bring greater awareness of the North American mountain lion and all nature and animals. I hope so.

    I stated that I understand Goodwill Nzou’s feelings about the killing of a lion. What I do not understand is the hostility he demonstrated in his writing for the country and the people who give him the opportunity to escape the village where he must fear a lion.

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