The Cecil the Lion tragedy exposes what has long been an underrecognized problem — foreign complicity with corrupt African regimes. While corruption in Africa has often narrowly been viewed as a shortcoming of some African governments, we typically forget about the outsiders who actively perpetuate the problem by taking advantage of weak structures for their own benefit.
In the last few days we have come to understand that Walter Palmer, a dentist from Eden Prairie, paid approximately $50,000 to bow hunt and kill a lion in Zimbabwe. Had not Palmer illegally killed one of Hwange National Park’s most beloved lions, Cecil, who also happened to be collared for a biological study, it is unlikely that this story would have ever seen the light of day.
While Palmer regrets the incident, he asserts that he was simply pursuing the sport he loves with proper legal permits and professional guides. While this may be true, the fact that the animal was lured out of the park prior to the kill should have raised red flags. Furthermore, Cecil was wearing a radio color for a biological study, yet this was not reported when the animal’s skin and head were taken as trophies.
The far bigger issue, however, is that Zimbabwe is a corrupt state led by Robert Mugabe, one of Africa’s longest-serving dictators.
While Zimbabwe was known for progressive wildlife management when I lived there as a worker at a nongovernmental organization in the mid-1990s, the country’s economic situation has progressively deteriorated as Mugabe (now 91) has repeatedly refused to step down and has beaten his political opposition into submission. The real tragedy here is the sad state of governance in Zimbabwe, an otherwise lovely country with wonderful people and amazing natural beauty.
Although the government of Zimbabwe has now charged the safari operator who facilitated Palmer’s hunt, it is likely that this group would normally have paid off a government official and the incident would have gone unnoticed. By contracting with a safari operator in Zimbabwe to hunt a lion, an animal officially proposed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, Palmer became complicit with the corrupt Zimbabwean state.
As a well-educated and successful dentist, Palmer likely knew that he was bending the law when he chose to hunt a rare animal in a country with a weak and corrupt government. He chose not to go to neighboring Botswana, for example, which has a much larger number of lions, a thriving ecotourism industry and a strong track record of clean governance.
Others commit similar transgressions when they cut business deals with African officials to log timber, mine minerals or deposit waste without accounting for the full environmental and social costs of their activities.
While government corruption in some African countries is clearly an African problem, we also cannot pretend that this situation exists in a vacuum. African governments and businesses continually interact with other players in the global economy and those actors are equally culpable when corruption occurs.
Efforts such as that of U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum from Minnesota’s Fourth District to enhance legislation against the international trade in and poaching of threatened species is welcome. It would be even better, however, if the U.S. took additional steps to ensure that all business dealings overseas by our citizens abided by acceptable environmental and labor standards.
While the world is justifiably outraged by the thoughtless poaching of Cecil, let us also not forget that this incident is symptomatic of the collusion of foreigners in corruption on the African continent, a seemingly far off and simplistically “African” issue.
William G. Moseley is a professor of geography and African studies at Macalester College in St. Paul and author of “An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes.” On Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley.