Why Cecil the lion offers lessons for land reform and the role of elites

The killing of Cecil the lion which generated a huge uproar globally presents Zimbabwean an opportune moment to look harder at who benefits from wildlife. Reuters/Eric Miller

The huge uproar generated by the shooting of Cecil the lion provides a fascinating lens into Zimbabwe’s new elite land politics and the relationship between humans and “wild” nature.

The country’s extensive game ranches and conservancies were mostly subject to land reform in the early 2000s. Many of the former owners were evicted, along with their safari operations. But this land, unlike most of the agricultural areas elsewhere in the country, was not handed over to land-hungry peasants or unemployed urbanites, but to elites.

How politics trumped conservation

For a time there was an argument that conservation areas were not to be part of the land reform, and that a separate wildlife-based land reform would be instituted. This was to be under the control of the Ministry of Environment, and not the Ministry of Lands, and so would guarantee the sanctity of the wildlife estate as a good source of revenue – from hunting, but more especially tourism.

But this soon got over-ridden by politics and many of the conservancy lands and other game farms were allocated as part of A2 (medium- to large-scale) land reform. And, as with a lot of A2 allocations – and particularly in the conservancies that many assumed to be very lucrative businesses – to well-connected elites.

Elite beneficiaries of land reform in Zimbabwe such as Honest Ndlovu have hooked up with white safari owners as they search for sources of income from their land. Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

The list of beneficiaries of some of these areas reads like a who’s who of the ZANU-PF political-military elite. Honest Trymore Ndlovu, the owner of the land where Cecil was shot, was one such beneficiary. The new land owners in search of income from their land have hooked up with white safari operators, some of whom formerly operated in the same areas.

Colonial patterns persist

Conservation – and hunting – has been long associated with white privilege and colonial expansion, and a European construction of landscape as wilderness. Cecil (and the name – same as Cecil Rhodes – becomes more appropriate with this lens) is also about issues of race, colonialism and the control over land.

Wildlife is once again perpetuating a new elite land politics, excluding wider populations from the benefits. This time it’s with new (black) faces. But many of the same unsavoury connections of the past remain, with links between politicians, poachers and hunting business entrepreneurs never far from the surface.

The Cecil story also exposes some of the racial dimensions of the relationships between wildlife, land and hunting in Zimbabwe. The hunting business has a long pedigree going back to the establishment of hunting blocks in various parts of the country in colonial times. Hunting was always seen as central to the colonial conquest involving taming wild Africa.

Many white farmers turned their properties over to private game hunting reserves in the 1980s and 1990s, sometimes as part of large blocks of land where the fences were removed. These were called “conservancies” – such as Gwaai in the west, as well as many others, notably the well-known Save Valley conservancy in the southeast.

These blocks and conservancies became the playgrounds of a rich, white elite, some local but many international, with Americans and Europeans being regular customers. Unlike the CAMPFIRE arrangements, the benefits from conservancies to surrounding populations were minimal, beyond a few concessionary ‘outreach’ efforts.

Who benefits from wildlife is the real question

The Cecil case raises pertinent questions about how hunting revenues can contribute to development.

From the 1980s, Zimbabwe was at the forefront of an international movement away from a preservationist position on conservation to one that emphasised conservation for development through “sustainable utilisation”. Hunting, it was argued, could be seen as a form of management, as long as careful cull quotas were adhered to.

Alongside Cecil, many lions (presumably without names) have been killed in the past years as part of regulated quotas. According to Peter Lindsay and colleagues in a 2013 PLOS One article, the annual lion quota for Zimbabwe is 101 across 38,000 square kilometres of hunting area on a mix of land-use types.

On average, 42.5 lions – less than half the quota – were killed each year between 2008 and 2011, presumably due to the drop in hunting visits to Zimbabwe in recent years.

Along with other southern African countries, Zimbabwe pioneered an approach linking game hunting with development, and the famous CAMPFIRE programme from the late 1980s became a flagship, with hunting concessions offered on communal lands that are near parks and safari areas.

The revenues raised were quite considerable, especially for the big five. Around 90% of CAMPFIRE revenues were from sport hunting, not other forms of tourism. Funds were ploughed back into development projects with dividends going to both the local community and Rural District Councils.

CAMPFIRE did not always work as planned, and there have been many critiques. But the principle of making use of local resources for local development has been widely acknowledged in the region – if not in East Africa where a more preservationist strand of conservation persists.

Banning hunting or trophy imports won’t solve anything. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

So what should we make of the sad demise of Cecil? Knee-jerk reactions resulting in bans on hunting or trophy imports will not solve anything. Past bans elsewhere have made things worse, with a rise in poaching, and decline in conservation protection.

While the posturing rhetoric about extraditing an American dentist dominates now, Zimbabweans should look harder at who benefits from wildlife. If revenues are to be generated from hunting quotas (and I am a great supporter of this route to conservation), they should not just benefit a narrow elite, involving a new pact between white hunters and their safari companies and the new politically connected black elite.

If Cecil and his other 100 odd fellow lions are to be part of a regulated hunting quota, so creating a resource for development, then the conservancies and game ranches need to be opened up for wider use to generate broader benefit.

Only then will the wildlife assets of the nation be properly shared and the habitats preserved for Cecil and his relatives. Perhaps the outcry over Cecil can result in a proper wildlife based land reform, so such wildlife can benefit everyone, not just elites – black or white.


This article on based the author’s latest Zimbabweland blog.