The killing of Cecil the lion, a black-maned inhabitant of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, has sparked outrage from conservationists.
As one of the oldest and largest male lions in Zimbabwe, Cecil was known by park rangers and safari drivers alike—a popular tourist attraction for the thousands of visitors to the park each year.
But last week, the lion crossed just outside the park’s border, and a bow hunter shot the 13-year-old big cat. The hunters reportedly tracked down the wounded lion two days later, killing him with a rifle. The Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association confirmed that Cecil was killed outside the park on private land, meaning the killing wasn’t illegal.
“There is an investigation ongoing at this time,” the group said in a statement. “We ask that members and non members refrain from speculating until all facts have been documented.”
Beks Ndlovo, chief executive of the African Bush Camps—a locally owned private safari company—said the hunting has to stop.
“I strongly object and vehemently disagree with the legalizing and practice of hunting lions in any given area,” Ndlovo said in a statement. “I will personally be encouraging Zimbabwe National Parks and engaging with government officials to stop the killing of lions and with immediate effect.”
Bryan Orford, a longtime park visitor and former professional guide in Zimbabwe, had filmed and photographed Cecil on many occasions. The lion was an easy target for a camera, and probably not much skill went into the hunt, he said.
“I used to drive down the railway line road following Cecil and had to wait for him to get off the road,” Orford said. “This walking in front of the vehicle would go on for ages. Other times he would lie in the road, and you had to drive off the road to go around him. That is why it also seems so wrong to hunt something that easy.”
Orford said Cecil’s killing has brought lion hunting back into the spotlight, with pro- and anti-hunting advocates debating the ethics of killing an animal so close to the border of a protected national park.
One source familiar with the situation told National Geographic that hunters have been known to lure big game out of park boundaries with bait. It “indicates to me a level of desperation by the hunting operators,” the source said. “No big male lions remain in their hunting concession areas, despite their claims of ‘sustainable’ hunting practices.”
Despite Cecil’s importance to the region’s tourism—Orford said people would visit Hwange Lodges just to get a photo with him—the cat was also a walking example that old lions, which typically live between 10 and 14 years, can be useful ecologically.
The legend of Cecil started about three and a half years ago, when the then-10-year-old lion was kicked out of his pride, beaten by younger, more powerful males. Hunters argue that as loners, prideless male lions aren’t as important to sustaining lion populations—as they no longer have control of the lionesses to mate.
But Cecil wasn’t finished. He soon teamed up with another lone male named Jericho, and the lions regained control of the region’s two prides, one of which consists of three lionesses and seven cubs under seven months old.
So, Why Should You Care? Oxford University professor Andrew Loveridge, a behavioral ecologist who focuses on the conservation and management of African carnivores, told National Geographic that the loss of Cecil most likely spells the end of Jericho’s reign—and the possible loss of the pride’s cubs.
“Jericho as a single male will be unable to defend the two prides and cubs from new males that invade the territory,” Loveridge said. “This is what we most often see happening in these cases. Infanticide is the most likely outcome.”
The fate of the hunters is yet to be determined, as Africa News 24 is reporting that there is no permitted quota to shoot lions in the Gwaai area—where Cecil was killed.
“The tourism operators, as well as the majority of the Zimbabwean population, are extremely passionate about the wildlife that we have worked hard to protect,” Ndlovo said. “And we will continue to do so to ensure the long term conservation of not only our National Parks but their surrounding vulnerable wilderness areas.”