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It's Surprisingly Legal to Eat Lion Meat

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe plans to serve a feast of wild animals at his birthday celebration this weekend, and both wildlife conservationists and local villagers are pissed about it.

Photo via WikiMedia Commons

As part of the celebrations for his 91st birthday next Saturday, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe will be served a feast featuring five impala, two buffalo, two elephants, two sables, and one lion. According to a report in Zimbabwe's The Chronicle, the menagerie was donated by Tendai Musasa, owner of the prominent Woodlands Farm near the Elephant Hills Resort at Victoria Falls, where the 20,000-person shindig will take place.

"This is our way of supporting the function and to ensure a celebratory mood in our community as well," Musasa told The Chronicle. "The total value is $120,000. This reflects the money we get annually and we thought this would be a perfect gesture. At the moment we are making arrangements with the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to slaughter these animals a few days before the day. We are also liaising with the hotel that will keep the meat."

While you'd think that eating elephants and lions, icons of wildlife conservation, would be illegal, it turns out it's not—neither under Zimbabwean nor international law. As of 1997, elephant populations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were deemed healthy enough to allow regulated hunts and the export of pachyderm products, like meat, which some say tastes of elk or moose. Zimbabwe even argues that it has more elephants than it can support, and accordingly encourages culls and consumption. Yet conservationists seem to believe that state officials have inflated these numbers and are shooting themselves in the foot by destroying the country's heritage, biodiversity, and draw for the vital tourism industry. The US, for its part, banned Zimbabwean elephant products in 2014 for fears about insufficient poaching controls, but this has no bearing on local or international laws.

Lion, as a threatened but not critically endangered species, is fair game for controlled hunts in Africa and even breeders in America, who kill big cats for trophies or food. Over the past few years, there have actually been a few spurts of niche lion-meat crazes in America (consumers say the flesh tastes like rich pork). Americans actually make up 64 percent of the market for trophies from lions killed in Africa, so comparatively Mugabe's one lion down is a pretty minor offense.

Still, it's difficult to quantify wild meat consumption around the world, according to Adam M. Roberts, CEO of the American wildlife conservation group Born Free USA and its British arm the Born Free Foundation. "Meat from wild, threatened species that is consumed domestically will not have to be accounted for [versus official tallies of exports]," he told me.

American markets for these meats are fairly small. Roberts says most of the lion eaten here, for example, is a stunt that often backfires on serving institutions, generating instant controversy. And although there is a history of serving elephant as a rare dish to honored guests throughout Africa, most such meats (lion especially) are not often consumed on the continent.

But if threatened game meat isn't terribly popular in most of Africa, Zimbabwe has occasionally served as an exception.

"[Mugabe and his ilk] have been doing this for years now," Johnny Rodrigues, Chair of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told The Guardian. "Every time there is a celebration or on independence day, several elephants and buffalo are killed for the celebrations."

Beyond these elite functions, there are records of Mugabe encouraging soldiers and rural villagers to eat elephant, sometimes ordered for distribution by the state, throughout the first years of the 2000s. Economic chaos and food shortages seem to have incentivized popular wild game hunting as well. And just within the past few months, Mugabe has taken flak for authorizing the sale of between 60 and 80 captured baby elephants to unknown buyers in China, France, and the United Arab Emirates for $60,000 a pop, ostensibly (and ironically) to fund wildlife conservation projects in the country. All told, the legal market in elephants has become a $14 million per year industry for Mugabe and his cohorts, not to speak of poaching or the effects of similar hunts on more threatened (e.g. lions) or even outright endangered animals in the nation.

Roberts suggests that any consumption of wild game meat will inevitably put further demand on hunters and poachers, driving threatened animals into riskier and riskier situations. So Zimbabwe's record here, and the very public consumption at a national feast by the nation's leader, is probably not a great sign for the country's big game populations, especially elephants.

Locals are just as unhappy about Mugabe's feast as conservationists, but for very different reasons. About 120 villagers near Musasa's farm claim that the animals are being taken off of lands they have rights to without their consultation or permission. Their removal comes out of the local hunting quota, which residents think means they'll essentially lose the bulk of a year's wages. According to a Zimbabwe paper, Musasa believes those who don't support the donation are "enemies of the president."

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