‘In a funny way, the killing of Cecil the Lion was the best thing that could have happened to us in Zim,’ murmurs our white Zimbabwean guide over a gin and tonic and a platter of crocodile and biltong. We are lurking in a hide disguised as a termite mound, waiting for the elephants to take their evening drink at the water hole below the Safari Club, a luxury game lodge in the resort town of Victoria Falls.
I shan’t give the guide’s name because even six months after the event, the ‘murder’ of Cecil the Lion — by a Minnesotan dentist, of all indignities — is still a sensitive subject in these parts. Cecil, by all accounts, was a highly popular figure: photogenically black of mane, pleasant of disposition (at least by lion standards), the undisputed star draw of nearby Hwange National Park. No one dependent on the region’s fragile tourist industry wants to come out publicly defending Cecilcide. You never know who’s listening. Someone might take offence.
Nevertheless, as my guide explains, Cecil may have done his home country a favour. First, he drew helpful attention to the fact that Zimbabwe — once the breadbasket of Africa, now more widely known as its basket case — still has a functioning safari tourism industry and that the game hasn’t all been eaten by starving locals. Second, he raised grudging awareness of something the world’s bunny-hugging bleeding hearts would rather you didn’t know: that trophy hunting may not only be essential to Africa’s economy, but also to the long-term survival prospects of its wildlife.
Around 105,000 animals are killed by the 18,500 trophy hunters who visit Africa every year. A ten-day lion-hunting package in Zimbabwe will cost you £36,500; the auction price of shooting a single black rhino in Namibia is around £230,000; the South African economy alone generates £325 million a year from its trophy hunting industry. It creates jobs; it attracts much-needed foreign revenue. Yet still most of the big wildlife conservation charities tell you it’s an outrage and should be banned.
Why? Well ostensibly it’s because hardly any of that revenue trickles down to poor, needy locals, because trophy hunting raises only a fraction of what photo safaris do, and because it may be driving rare species closer to extinction.
In reality, though, it’s about telling potential donors what they want to hear. The international animal compassion industry — buoyed by tweets from the likes of comedian-turned-campaigner Ricky Gervais and royal patronage from both the Prince of Wales and Prince William — makes the kind of money the hunting industry can only dream of. In the frenzy of virtue signalling that followed Cecil’s death, it cashed in with everything from special edition Ty Beanie toys to £1,500 gold mobile phones engraved with the moving legend ‘For Cecil and his Kingdom’.
But for most people who actually live in Africa, it’s a different story, as Zimbabwean conservationist Trevor Lane explains. Lane runs the Bhejane Trust, a charity dedicated to preserving the black rhino in parks including Hwange. ‘I’m a great fan of Prince William, but he’s got it completely wrong on trophy hunting,’ he tells me. ‘Not only does it provide a large chunk of our national park budget, but it gives local people a vested interest in preserving wildlife.’
Take elephants — one of the big five species most favoured by trophy hunters (the others being lion, leopard, Cape buffalo and rhino). To a squeamish urban Westerner, it might seem a monumental tragedy when — as happened in Zimbabwe in October — a massive bull elephant gets shot by some fat German trophy hunter. To a starving African villager, though, it’s a lifeline.
‘Suppose you’re a subsistence farmer and you’ve got $200 of crops which have to last you the whole year. Well that elephant can destroy them in one night. So that elephant has really no value to you, except as poached ivory — which will get you imprisoned for nine years, if you’re not shot on the spot — or as meat. Unless, of course, a professional game hunter comes along and tells you that that elephant is worth $10,000 to your community. Then suddenly you’ve got a reason not to kill it.’
And no, the argument about sparing game for the more lucrative photo tourism doesn’t wash. Not when southern Africa has so many elephants — 108,000 in Botswana’s Chobe park alone — that it doesn’t know what to do with them. Besides which, those national parks make up just a tiny fraction of the country. ‘A lot of the rest is so rough, sparse and remote you could drive all day and see almost nothing,’ says Lane. ‘No photo tourist would want to go there, but thanks to game hunters these barren regions become economically viable.’
Well, that’s me persuaded. But I fear I’m in a minority. As I’ve noticed on repeated visits over the years, first as a 19-year-old overlander in a rickety bus from Cairo to the Cape, most people in the West aren’t much interested in the real problems of the real Africa. They’d rather keep it as it is on Meerkat Manor or The Lion King; as a gigantic theme park full of charmingly anthropomorphised animals singing jolly songs in pidgin Swahili.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore fantasy Africa as much as the next would-be Stewart Granger. To research this article I went on safari courtesy of Somak Holidays and experienced a cornucopia of once-in-a-lifetime experiences: helicopter flights over the Victoria Falls; gorge-jumping off 300ft cliffs above the Zambesi; djembe drumming, silly costumes and warthog steaks (delicious) in the Boma restaurant; sunset cruises on the Chobe river, a booze cruise on the Upper Zambezi; a bull elephant coming to drain the water from the private plunge pool at my luxury air-conditioned chalet at Ngoma Safari Lodge; enormous crocodiles; migrating zebra… it’s a trip I can’t recommend highly enough. I’ve been on lots of safaris over the years, but never one where I’ve eaten so well and been accommodated so luxuriously, and seen so much magnificent game — including, my highlight, the scarce Roan antelope — so close-up.
But after a week of morning game drives and Ama-rula nights, about the only actual Africans you’ll have met will be your delightful lodge staff, your oblig–ing guide, the man who stamped your passport, the traditional native dancers stomping for cash at the gateway to the Zambezi booze cruise, and the similarly desperate locals trying to fleece you for crappy carved wooden elephants in the market. So that leaves about 973 million other Sub-Saharan Africans still unaccounted for — and they’ve all got to eat, somehow.
Poaching’s a no-no, we can agree on that: the animals are slaughtered indiscriminately, they die horribly by poisoning, botched gunshot or mutilation, and the gangsters who profit from it are mostly not even African. But if all that photogenic wildlife is to be preserved for future David Attenborough films, then park rangers need to be paid, and the ordinary Africans who have to live cheek by mane with all that prowling, stomping game need to be persuaded that it’s more a boon than a curse.
Trophy hunting isn’t the only answer, but it is one of the answers. Sure, it might not be to everyone’s tastes. (Personally, I’m far too squeamish to kill a lion with a gun and nowhere near brave enough to try it with a crossbow.) But since when did any ignorant do-gooder in New York or London have the right to tell people on one dollar a day that they can’t have a future because killing fluffy animals with cute names is hurtful and horrid?
To me, the very idea of that is far more despicable, nauseating and inexcusable than anything that maligned dentist did to Cecil.
TROPHY FEES IN NUMBERS
Two nights at Africa Albida Tourism’s Victoria Falls Safari Club and two nights at Ngoma Safari Lodge, Chobe National Park, with flights and transfers, from £2,850pp: Somak Holidays (www.somak.co.uk, 020 8423 3000).