Andres Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer: There’s more going on than Cecil the lion’s story

FILE - In this image takem from a November 2012 video made available by Paula French, a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil strolls around in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's wildlife minister says extradition is being sought for Walter Palmer, the American dentist who killed a Cecil.
FILE - In this image takem from a November 2012 video made available by Paula French, a well-known, protected lion known as Cecil strolls around in Hwange National Park, in Hwange, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's wildlife minister says extradition is being sought for Walter Palmer, the American dentist who killed a Cecil. AP

There is no question that Cecil the lion’s killing is an outrage, and that it should be punished, but I wish we would spend a fraction of the attention we are paying to this story on other tragedies that go virtually unnoticed across the world, including in Cecil’s own country.

Cecil, the lion that was apparently lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe and shot by an American dentist who paid $50,000 for the hunting experience, has been one of the world’s most watched stories since it was first reported on July 27. The hunter apparently first wounded the animal with an arrow, then tracked it for 40 hours and killed it with a rifle.

Hardly a day goes by without a new headline on Cecil’s life, the fate of his brother Jericho — whose reported killing by poachers shocked the world for a few hours, until it was found to be a false alarm — or Zimbabwe’s request for the extradition of the dentist, Dr. Walter Palmer, from the United States.

And, no doubt, it is a fascinating — and sad — story, which helps draw much-needed attention on cruelty to animals. But there is also a valid argument to be made that, ironically, we are paying much more attention to the killing of a lion in Zimbabwe that to reports of human killings by Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe.

There are already more than 76 million Google searches for “Cecil the lion,” an amazing number considering that Cecil first made news worldwide less than two weeks ago. Comparatively, a Google search of “Robert Mugabe,” who has been in power since the 1980s, shows only 8.7 million Google searches.

Mugabe, in addition to destroying his country’s economy, was prime minister at the time of the so-called 1983 Gukurahundi massacres, in which 20,000 people in Matabeleland in western Zimbabwe were killed. According to a recent report by historian Stuart Doran in the British daily “The Guardian,” new historical documents show that Mugabe “was the prime architect of well-planned and systematically executed mass killings.”

In addition to the scant international attention to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, we have heard very little in recent weeks about the conflict that has already claimed 220,000 deaths in Syria, where ruler Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. (Assad, by the way, has 18 million Google searches.)

And in recent days, we’ve heard very little of the Cuban regime’s arrests of 674 peaceful opponents, which was reported by the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation; or of the Venezuelan government’s ridiculous arguments to ban five opposition leaders from running in the Dec. 6 legislative elections.

But perhaps the biggest irony of the Cecil the lion story is that the shooting of a lion in Zimbabwe is drawing much more attention in the U.S. media than the 89 people that die from gun violence in the United States every day. Yes, you read well, 89 people a day — more than 32,000 a year — die from gun violence in the United States, according to figures from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Amazingly, the recent mass shootings in Charleston, Chattanooga and Lafayette seem to have drawn national attention for a shorter period of time than Cecil the lion.

Even more amazingly, despite the fact that about 40 percent of the millions of guns sold every year in the United States are given out without proper background checks, the leading Republican hopefuls for the 2016 presidential election oppose any kind of gun control measures, even stronger background checks.

My opinion: The media have a natural tendency to love celebrity tragedies, whether they focus on Michael Jackson, Lady Di or a well-known Zimbabwean lion. They are easier to relate to, and cheaper to cover, than mass killings in Zimbabwe, the civil war in Syria, or civil rights abuses in Cuba or Venezuela.

Additionally, new technologies for “social listening” tools — algorithms that search social media to detect what chatter may soon be “trending” — may cause news organizations that use them to become even more prone to focus on Cecil-like stories.

Granted, not reporting a story like Cecil the lion’s is not an option. It certainly deserves world attention, and is interesting. But we would all benefit from at least equal attention to ongoing tragedies affecting human beings, whether they are victims of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe or of lax gun laws here in the United States.

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