Zimbabwe Big-game Hunters Defend Safari Hunts
“There’s hunting in America. Why shouldn’t there be hunting in Africa?” said Fundira, president of the Safari Operators
HARARE, Zimbabwe — When the guides who helped an American hunter kill Cecil the lion last month sat in a Zimbabwean court on Wednesday morning, it was the most high-profile case against illegal hunting in this country’s history.
But Cecil was hardly the first or last lion to be killed by a wealthy tourist. Commercial hunting is a staple of Zimbabwe’s tourism sector, and those who are defending Cecil’s killers are trying to portray their clients as responsible businessmen, not reckless poachers.
“They did everything legally. They bought permits,” said Givemore Muvhiringi, the attorney for Theo Bronkhorst, one of the guides. “Communities benefit from the money that hunting brings across Zimbabwe.”
Even as the trial was postponed until Sept. 28, Zimbabwean hunters moved to defend their profession, which has never tried to conceal itself from the public eye. Many guides have Web sites with photos of hunters posing alongside their trophy kills — lions, leopards and giraffes.
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“There’s hunting in America. Why shouldn’t there be hunting in Africa?” said Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe.
But Fundira and other Zimbabwean advocates of hunting say the guides who tracked Cecil knowingly disregarded the rules in luring the lion out of a national park into unprotected territory, an accusation the guides deny. They favor a punishment for the men but are against any broad measures against the industry at large.
The government has suspended hunting in the area around Hwange National Park, where Cecil lived, but officials have not said how long the ban will last. Meanwhile, expensive hunting trips in other parts of the country continue.
Between 1999 and 2008, hunters visiting Zimbabwe killed 871 lions, according to a study by international biologists and conservationists. Most of the animals were killed legally, but there is a long history of informal hunting here, too, and much of it occurs on private land stocked with wildlife.
Even Muvhiringi, the defense attorney, acknowledges that in any other case, the hunters probably would have escaped without suffering any consequences.
“If it were any other lion, it would have gone unreported,” he said.
Cecil, however, was a recognizable tourist attraction.
Zimbabwean hunters and the safari association say that the lion population in the country remains healthy, at more than 2,000, allowing for sustainable hunting. But some have questioned the number.
“These are all just guesstimates. We don’t know how many are really left,” said Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force. “We need scientists to investigate how many are actually here.”
Other statistics also have come into question.
The safari association says hunting helps support more than 800,000 Zimbabweans. Indeed, the expeditions and permits are enormously expensive. But many here argue that the millions of dollars spent to kill wildlife are funneled into the hands of a very few — namely landowners who typically have strong connections to the ruling party.
Meanwhile, the issue has received little attention in Zimbabwe, where economic problems and questions about the government of 91-year-old Robert Mugabe dominate the public conversation.
“The people here say, ‘A lion killed — so what?’ ” said Rugare Gumbo, a former spokesman for Mugabe’s party who is now a member of the political opposition.
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