Over the past 3 days, it appears that the only thing Americans can talk about, whether around the watercooler, in the office or during prime time TV, is the tragic death of Cecil the Zimbabwe lion, and his "monster" killer, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. The reality, of course, is that despite engaging in the rather anachronistic pursuit of self-gratification through shooting at animal prey, in this case a bow and arrow, in a day and age of online apps and cyberspace, Palmer, a self-professed avid big-game hunter, did nothing illegal in his opinion having relied on local guides and was said to believe the hunt was legal.
"I have not been contacted by authorities in Zimbabwe or in the U.S. about this situation, but will assist them in any inquiries they may have," Palmer said but by then the witch hunt was on: not only were crowds of people stalking out his office but investigators have knocked on the front door of Palmer's house, stopped by his dental office, called his telephone numbers and filled his inbox with e-mails. There is even a petition, with over 155,000 signatures, demanding Palmer be extradited to Zimbabwe where he would "face justice" alongside his two guides who are already said to be in custody.
Not surprisingly, Palmer has prudently disappeared until tempers cool off and/or an arrest warrant is issued for his arrest.
In the grand scheme of things, this is yet another grand, and convenient distraction du jour for the US public to rally around with a cry of fake (or in some TV talk show hosts, almost real) indignation while preaching moral superiority (killing one lion is apocryphal but killing millions of hamburgers and pork burritos every year is, well, meh) while the US economy continues to disintegrate under everyone's feet.
However, where this particular episode rapidly crossed the surreal threshold, is when news hit overnight that Obama administration officials are offering to help the Zimbabwean government investigate the high-profile killing.
Yes, the president would show the American people just what a humanitarian he is, and do what he does best: dispense "fairness" and "justice."
Only... this being the US government, what really happened is another grotesque instance of unparalleled hypocrisy promptly backfiring.
Presenting "QUIET DIPLOMACY" SUSPENDS ELEPHANT HUNTING IN NATIONAL PARKS - FOR NOW" - a Confidential memo sent on October 23, 2008 by the current US ambassador to Zimbabwe, James D. Mcgee, to the CIA, and released by Wikileaks.
In it we read that, as usual, there is none more culpable of the recent event in Zimbabwe, which incidentally is and has been quite permitted by the local authorities as long as everyone's palms are appropriately greased, than the US government, which years ago was fully aware that Americans were killing lions in Hwange National Park, but that its concern was not with the dead animals - no matter how hard the administration tries to feign empathy for the beheaded lion here and now - but with Americans getting caught in the act. As has just happened.
But first, here is some background on how legal local poaching, whether it is for lions or elephants is. From the formerly classified memo:
Meeting with poloff and conoff on October 10, Bown said that it was unclear "how legal" these hunting operations were, since it appeared the hunters had permits issued by Parks to kill the animals, despite the provision in the National Parks Act that prohibits commercial hunting. The photographic safari operators indicated Parks had given several local and South African hunting companies concessions to kill elephants in Hwange if they met specific criteria: (1) total ivory weight less than 30 pounds, (2) young/adolescent males, (3) isolated areas (i.e. away from watering holes and main roads), and (4) controlled by Parks staff. Parks has never publicly stated these criteria or explained the operation. Frustrated photographic safari operators weighed and photographed many of the tusks at the Park's ivory store in Hwange and found that many were over 30 pounds each. In one case, an operator claimed an American hunter killed an elephant with tusks weighing over 120 pounds. Photos also show some elephants were killed very near main roads and close to watering holes. In at least one reported case, a vehicle drove around the animal before the hunter killed it at close range. In emails to Mtsambiwa and Nhema, safari operators decried the unethical hunting both in terms of the detrimental ecological impact and the negative impact it would have on their own businesses.
... the safari operators also reported that some of the hunting guides had been issued hundreds of hunting permits for elephants in Hwange and other national parks in mid-to-late August. Normally, hunting permits are offered in an auction to all professional hunting guides. In contrast, Bown said these recent permits were issued through a non-transparent process to professional hunters of ill-repute, including some South African operators.
So both the Zimbabwe ambassador and the CIA knew Zimbabwe was permitting and flaunting its own "regulations" when it comes to poaching if the fee is good enough. And, since American citizens were involved, the fee most certainly was:
Despite Mtsambiwa's assurances at our August meeting that Parks was only planning a management/training exercise for Parks staff, in early September poloff received an email from an American citizen in California, asking about an advertisement for an elephant hunt in Zimbabwe to hunt five elephants over ten days for USD 6,000 as part of a culling exercise. The meat from the animals would go to local villagers and hunters were expected to help with on-site butchering of the animals. This price is significantly less than most elephant hunting packages. Normally, elephant hunting excursions in Zimbabwe cost about USD 1,000 per day, plus a fee for each animal killed. The hunting operation was to be led by Zimbabwean Headman Sibanda and was arranged by Thomas Powers Internationale, based in Colorado.
Where was the disgust then? Oh yes, elephants are not cute animals about which Broadway musicals are written.
However, there is a problem, because reading on we find that not only did the government know about everything that was going on involving US poachers, quite legal and paying very well, involving the hunting of elephants, but also, drumroll, lions.
Bown, Save Valley Conservancy Director Clive Stockil and other conservationists opined in conversations with us that hunting permits were issued by Parks under intense pressure from its politicized board and ZANU-PF. Bown believed this frantic last grab at hunting revenue was one more aspect of ZANU-PF insiders' efforts to strip assets and fill their pockets before losing power to the MDC. She said that the same small group of hunters involved in this operation had been consistently involved in unethical and marginally legal hunting. Bown had no evidence that they were involved specifically with sanctioned individuals within the Mugabe regime, but believed such connections were likely. According to Bown, the Zimbabwean professional hunters involved include Guy Whitall, Tim Schultz of African Dream Safaris, Headman Sibanda and Wayne Grant of Nyala Safaris, Evans Makanza, Alan Shearing, Buzz Charlton and James Macullam of Charlton Macullum Safaris, A.J. Van Heerden of Shashe Safaris, Barry Van Heerden of Big Game Safaris, and Lawrence Boha. (COMMENT: Numerous conservationists have suggested the Van Heerden brothers are involved in suspicious hunting and land deals with the Director of the Central Intelligence Organization, Happyton Bonyongwe, although none have provided proof of the relationship. END COMMENT.)
Additionally, one safari operator accused an American, by name, of killing a lion illegally and then smuggling its hide out through South Africa. Given the rampant smuggling of other animal products across Zimbabwe's southern border (reftel), this is not unlikely. As reported in reftel, American hunting dollars are vital to Zimbabwe's conservation efforts, but there are also serious risks that Americans could be implicated in smuggling and poaching operations.
And there you have it: while blaming Walter Palmer is easy, the truth is that at its core, the death of Cecil, as well as countless other lions, elephants, rhinos and other animals, is solely as a result of the Zimbabwe government's corruption. A corruption, which the US government knew all about, and which also knew that US hunters were killing not only elephants but lions.
The government's only real concern: the "serious risks that Americans could be implicated in smuggling and poaching operations."
And now that an American has been implicated in poaching, what does the government do? It generously offers to "help the Zimbabwe government investigate the killing" of Cecil. Even though both Zimbabwe and the US government have tacitly approval of just this kind of behavior for years. Until something went wrong.
Come to think of it, that's precisely what happens in the US capital markets too: as long as stocks go up, nobody cares about criminal behavior and bubble blowing (just don't get caught spoofing an ES sell orders). But once the real selling begins...