Man Who Identified Cecil the Lion’s Killer Vows Death Will Not Be in Vain
Zimbabwean activist Johnny Rodrigues says he now has an unprecedented platform to promote conservation
By Simon Allison
For 35 years, Johnny Rodrigues has been trying to get people to pay attention to conservation issues in Zimbabwe’s Hwange national park, with limited success. Then, in July, a dentist from Minneapolis killed Cecil the lion, the park’s most famous resident, and Rodrigues found himself at the centre of an international media storm.
Photo by paulafrenchp
As the head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), the organization which he founded, Rodrigues was besieged by interview requests as journalists scrambled for information. He would soon play an even more central role in the story, identifying US citizen Walter James Palmer as Cecil’s assailant, and releasing his passport number and address.
“They went hunting at night with a spotlight and they spotted Cecil,” he says. “They tied a dead animal to their vehicle to lure Cecil out of the park and they scented an area about half a kilometer from the park. Mr Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn’t kill him. They tracked him down and found him 40 hours later when they shot him with a gun.”
Palmer became the subject of an online witch-hunt which forced him to go into hiding after numerous death threats. Eventually Zimbabwe said he would not face charges over the killing, because he had obtained the correct permits. Theo Bronkhorst, the professional hunter who facilitated the killing, is facing legal action in Zimbabwe for violating the terms of his hunting permit.
For Rodrigues, the six months since Cecil the lion’s death have given him an unprecedented platform to advocate for the cause that he has made his life’s work. “Cecil didn’t die for no reason. Cecil died for a cause. Things in conservation are going to change in the next few years, and it’s going to make this planet better,” he told the Guardian.
“I was shocked at the response from the world. I’ve lived in a bad dream for 35 years, but people who have had something in the back of their conscience about animals, they have now woken up. Even if it has died off in mainstream media, on social media the conversation has actually strengthened. We’ve become a force to be reckoned with. There are a lot of animals that can’t speak out, but we can,” he says.
Rodrigues has been invited to give talks at Cecil the lion remembrance marches in New York and Washington DC in July next year. Although he didn’t go into the numbers, he says the ZCTF, which relies on donor funding, has been flooded with new donations.
Rodrigues’s elevated profile offers some vindication for the wildlife activist, who has not always had it easy. He has had several run-ins with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwean government, which has not always appreciated his outspoken criticism of its conservation policy. In 2003, he was told by a director of the National Parks Authority that he was “persona non grata” and would no longer be allowed entry to any national parks. “I’m not the government’s favorite person, but I’m still here,” Rodrigues says.
He remains critical of the government. He says: “The cake is big enough. Why is it that the majority of people get the crumbs, and the few get big slices of cake?”
Rodrigues argues that the government should do more to improve the economic situation of people near conservation areas, thus removing the financial incentive to hunt. “We could be relying on solar energy, giving it to the people who farm near these wildlife areas. We could be giving a percentage from the tourism industry to these people. We could do so much, but we don’t, because the dictatorship does not benefit. They want to use humans like puppets.”
It is people, ultimately, that Rodrigues believes pose the greatest threat to African wildlife. Rodrigues says: “Nobody is talking about human overpopulation. What concerns me is what are future generations going to be doing if we don’t have population control? This planet is not going to feed the masses, and now the people are going into the wildlife areas.”