On July 1, 2015, a black-maned lion named Cecil was illegally killed after being drawn out of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park reserve. While the incident made headlines in Zimbabwe upon discovery of the popular lion’s death, it wasn’t until the hunter that killed him was identified on July 27 that the story went viral across the Internet. Here’s everything you need to know about what happened.
Who Was Cecil The Lion?
Cecil the lion was considered the star attraction of Hwange National Park, the largest game reserve in Zimbabwe. His dark mane made him easy to identify and for over a decade his willingness to spend time out in the open around visitors made him one of the most photographed lions in the world.
The 13-year old Cecil and another lion named Jericho led two prides with six lionesses and a dozen cubs. Older lions usually don’t maintain a hold on prides after a certain age, but working with Jericho allowed Cecil to capture alpha status in the area. Cecil’s dark mane made him popular with the lionesses, too – the darker the mane, the more attractive a lion is to potential mates.
Cecil was also one of 500 lions involved in a research program run by Oxford University. Since 1999, the lion had a tracking collar that allowed the university to study his location and better understand the movements of the male lion population. Conservation was the goal of the research — learning where lions go helps scientists understand the threats they face and allows them to work with local government to help protect them from being killed.
How Was Cecil Killed?
According to reports by way of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, Cecil was drawn from the reserve by Theo Bronkhorst of Bushman Safaris, a big game hunting company operating out of Victoria Falls. They tied a dead animal to their vehicle to bait the lion and scented an area half a kilometer outside the reserve.
Once there, a dentist from Minneapolis named Walter Palmer shot the lion from a hunting blind with a crossbow but did not kill him. The men ended up tracking the injured Cecil for over 40 hours before finally catching up to him and shooting him with a rifle. They then decapitated the lion and skinned him. As of now the head has not been recovered. They also attempted to destroy the tracking collar Cecil wore, but were unsuccessful.
Will There Be Any Legal Consequences?
Theo Bronkhorst and land owner Honest Trymore Ndlovu have been arrested in Zimbabwe and they have been charged with poaching, a charge that carries a penalty of up to 15 years. Presently, they are out on the equivalent of $1,000 bail.
According to Chris Macsween of Lion Aid, there is little chance the American, Walter Palmer, will be charged. “A client does what his professional hunter tells him. A client usually has no idea about the laws and regulations of the country he is hunting in – he just buys a safari and then places himself in the hands of his professional hunter guide.” Macsween wrote. “In terms of legal prosecution, this person is hardly important.”
This Is Not A Unique Situation
What may be shocking to those unfamiliar with big game hunting laws in Africa is how many aspects of Cecil the lion’s killing are completely legal. It is legal to lure lions out of a wildlife reserve to kill them. It is legal to kill a collared lion. The only reason any charges were brought was because the land Cecil was killed on did not have the correct permit to allow a lion to be shot.
One of the most depressing facts to come from this story is from the very Oxford University study Cecil was a part of: 74 percent of the male lions living along the border of Hwange National Park have been killed by hunters. Lions are lured out of reserves for a very simple reason: there aren’t very many lions left to hunt outside of the reserve due to the unsustainable rate of trophy hunting that occurs.
The Number Of Lions Is Falling Quickly
In 1980, the estimated number of lions in Africa was 80,000. Now there are less than 25,000 left. What’s worse, lions now occupy under 20 percent of the regions they used to be found in. Without changes in the way hunting is managed in Africa, there may not be many lions left in the wild at all.
While hunting advocates say the money raised by auctioning the rights to hunt big game fuels a variety of essential conservation efforts, some experts disagree. Dominic Dyer of the Born Free Foundation notes that South Africa only pulls in about $200 million a year from hunting permits, while wildlife tourism in Kenya brings in over $1 billion a year.
This quote from a National Geographic article sums up the financial disparity between tourism and hunting perfectly:
Bryan Orford, a professional wildlife guide who worked in Hwange and filmed Cecil many times, says the lion was the park’s “biggest tourist attraction. Not only a natural loss, but a financial loss.” Orford calculates that with tourists from just one nearby lodge collectively paying U.S. $9,800 per day, Zimbabwe would have brought in more in just five days by having Cecil’s photograph taken rather than being shot by someone paying a one-off fee of U.S. $45,000 with no hope of future revenue.