For many in Zimbabwe, Cecil the lion tells only part of the story

Story highlights

  • Some people in Zimbabwe said they didn't even know about Cecil and wonder why an animal gets more sympathy than people
  • Human rights activist: Going to a game park is a "luxury most locals cannot afford"

(CNN)The killing of Cecil the lion by a U.S. dentist in Zimbabwe drew a swift and passionate backlash. A petition urging Walter Palmer's extradition to Zimbabwe garnered more than 220,000 signatures. TV host Jimmy Kimmel gave an emotional monologue condemning the killing. People sought to bring down Palmer's dental practice through negative Yelp reviews and protests.

But some in Cecil's native Zimbabwe and in the United States criticized the massive outrage over Cecil's death and questioned why the loss of human lives didn't seem to bring the same response.
    When news of Cecil's death first came out, many in Zimbabwe had never heard of the lion, said Fungai Machirori, a Zimbabwe-based journalist and social commentator.
    "People expressed, 'Will I look like a dumb person if I admit to not knowing anything about Cecil?' " she said.
    "As time went on, the kind of international rhetoric that framed it as though the whole country was in mourning ... that's when the initial disconnect began for me."

    Cecil not particularly known in his homeland

    McDonald Lewanika, the director of Crisis Zimbabwe Coalition, a network of activist groups in Zimbabwe, said that while Cecil was a "tourist phenomenon," the vast majority of people in Zimbabwe did not know the lion existed.
    Charity Hodzi, a Zimbabwe-based human rights activist and lawyer, said she also had never heard of Cecil. She said that going to a game park was a "luxury most locals cannot afford."
    Machirori said that as a part of Zimbabwe's natural history and habitat, the death of a lion and the whole concept of "trophy killing" was still an important issue. Cecil was lured out of his habitat at the Hwange National Park and shot with crossbow, making his death especially brutal.
    But the sweeping outrage over Cecil left out other concerns in Zimbabwe that Machirori said deserve attention.
    "If we're going to talk about Cecil in a balanced manner, we need to talk about the environment that Cecil and Zimbabweans inhabit," Machirori said. "To be honest, Cecil, among most people who are highly read and highly knowledgeable about the context of Zimbabwe, was not a very topical issue until there was an international sort of perspective on it."

    A nation gripped by poverty

    As of 2012, 72.3% of Zimbabweans lived under the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. As of 2014, GDP per capita was $2,000 -- 25 times less than what Palmer paid to kill Cecil the lion. Hyperinflation and alleged human rights violations by President Robert Mugabe's government have plagued the country for years.
    Lewanika said that while it was heartening to see the international concern over Cecil, it was "disquieting" that people seemed to care more about a lion than other "pressing issues including a failing economy, a repressive regime that has been abducting its opponents, stifling the press and arresting activists."
    Zimbabwe is on the verge of a "looming crisis" politically and economically, Lewanika said. He said international attention on human concerns in the country could help.
    Hodzi also said that Cecil was not a priority -- not when hunger, starvation, a high rate of maternal mortality and drought demand the attention of those in Zimbabwe.
    In a post titled, "Beyond Cecil: Issues the media needs to cover about Zimbabwe," Machirori highlighted other important stories in her country, including news about Itai Dzamara, a political activist and journalist who was abducted more than four months ago, crackdowns on unregulated street vendors by the police and the country's growing tech scene.
    "It is the deepest irony that in a time when the #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to gain traction in highlighting the differential scales used to value human lives, the world should cast its eye on Zimbabwe for its wildlife, with no thought or concern for its people," she wrote in her post.