Mugabe had not previously spoken publicly about Cecil, whose killing last month prompted international outrage but little reaction in Zimbabwe, where trophy hunting has gone on for years. Other problems — such as rampant unemployment — are a more dominant part of the public conversation.
But Mugabe seemed intent on using the lion as a metaphor — first for exploitation and then for the inability of his fellow countrymen to preserve their resources.
“Cecil the lion was yours, and you failed to protect him,” said the 91-year-old, one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state.
Zimbabwe had imposed a ban on hunting in the area where Cecil was killed but lifted it after only 10 days. Meanwhile, big-game hunting expeditions went on across other parts of the country, even as the environment minister asked for Walter Palmer, the American hunter who killed Cecil, to be extradited. Most Zimbabwean officials do not expect Palmer to be extradited.
But Mugabe hinted at his own opposition to big-game hunting in his country, calling it a “sin.” The sport brings millions of dollars in revenue for Zimbabwe every year. It’s unclear whether Mugabe plans any changes to existing laws that permit the hunting of lions, elephants, leopards and other animals, at great expense, in much of the country.
Some of that money goes to conservation and the national park system, but Mugabe’s critics say much of it ends up in the hands of private landowners who have ties to his party. Invoking Cecil, they said, was merely an attempt to detract from the country’s larger problems — its troubled economy, its history of political violence, and the crippling sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe.
Mugabe concluded his Cecil monologue, which drifted indiscernibly between the metaphorical and the literal, by saying:
“We were given a rich inheritance. Of course, they may bite, but they are ours."
He isn’t known for being a model conservationist, however. At Mugabe's 91st birthday party, guests reportedly feasted on both elephant and lion meat.
The country has also captured dozens of baby elephants from the wild and plans to sell them to foreign buyers, many of whom are in China, where ivory smuggling is rampant.