Death of Zimbabwe’s Best-Loved Lion Ignites Debate on Sport Hunting

Zimbabwe’s most well-known and much-photographed black-maned lion, affectionately named Cecil, was killed by sport hunters just outside the nation’s premier wildlife park, Hwange, last week.

Wildlife enthusiasts say Cecil, possibly Hwanges’s largest lion, was a favorite among visitors to the park as he was relaxed around safari vehicles.

Conservationists are concerned that the killing of the 13-year-old big cat may leave as many as a dozen cubs vulnerable to infanticide by males that assume leadership of his prides. Males commonly kill the cubs of ousted pride leaders so that they may sire their offspring with the females they inherit.

According to Jonny Rodrigues of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), a charity which focuses on the conservation and preservation of wildlife in the southern African country, Cecil was shot with bow and arrow by a Spanish hunter in the Gwaai concession about a kilometer [1,100 yards] from the national park.

Skinned and Beheaded for Trophy

Rodrigues says that Cecil did not die immediately;  it took two days to track the lion and finish him off with a rifle. The big cat was skinned and his head removed as a trophy.

The Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association (ZPHGA) confirmed in a statement last Monday that Cecil was killed outside the park on a safari on private land. The professional hunter on the hunting permit was a ZPHGA member, the organization said, adding that there was an ongoing investigation.

A source familiar with the situation, who wishes to remain unnamed, says big cats may be lured out of protected areas into hunting concessions with bait. It “indicates to me a level of desperation by the hunting operators. No big male lions remain in their hunting concession areas, despite their claims of ‘sustainable’ hunting practices,” the source added.

Hunters posting in online forums insist there was nothing illegal about the hunting of Cecil.

Widespread Condemnation

Legal or not, the death of Cecil, who has been a wildlife icon in the area for years, has been condemned both locally and internationally. Many people have taken to online media to express their horror and denuciation of the hunt. The condemnation comes in the immediate wake of the controversy surrounding Hwange’s parks authorities capturing and exporting 23 baby elephants to China.

Cecil’s death has also caused deep concern among many conservationists and has re-ignited the ethics surrounding lion trophy hunting, especially near protected areas.

In a press release, Beks Ndlovo, CEO of the African Bush Camps group of companies, a private, owner-run African-based safari company, stated: “In my personal capacity… I strongly object and vehemently disagree with the legalising and practice of hunting lions in any given area. I will personally be encouraging Zimbabwe National Parks and engaging with Government Officials to stop the killing of lions and with immediate effect.”

Cecil was wearing a GPS-collar installed by a team of researchers in Hwange National Park. The researchers have been conducting an ongoing study on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, a scientific group specializing in wild carnivores.

From 1999 they began an ongoing ecological study of African lions in Hwange to measure the impact of sport-hunting beyond the park on the lion population within the park, using radio-telemetry and direct observation.

The research found that 34 of 62 tagged lions died during the study period; 24 were shot by sport hunters. Sport hunters in the safari areas surrounding the park killed 72 percent of tagged adult males from the study area. This caused a decline in numbers of adult males in the population.

Knock-on Infanticide

Dr. Andrew Loveridge, one of the principal researchers on the project, says that “hunting predators on the boundaries of national parks such as Hwange causes significant disturbance and knock-on effects” such as infanticide when new males entered the prides.

Cecil was in coalition with another male lion, Jericho. Between them they had two prides consisting of six lionesses and about a dozen young cubs. Loveridge says, “Jericho as a single male will be unable to defend the two prides and cubs from new males that invade the territory. This is what we most often see happening in these cases. Infanticide is the most likely outcome.”

Loveridge states that a more recent study conducted on the socio-spatial behavior of lion population following the perturbation by sport hunting, shows “there is also growing evidence that lion populations that are socially disrupted may be more prone to coming into conflict with human communities on the boundaries of protected areas. This is largely because movement patterns become erratic and lions are more likely to leave the park.”

“These cats are complex”, explains Loveridge, “which is why disturbance of their social system has such far reaching knock-on effects.”

Loveridge also noted that “there were other irregularities in the hunt which are being investigated.” He says such examples include the fact that “in the Gwaai Conservancy no lion hunting quota was issued for 2015” and that the “GPS collar we had fitted on the lion was destroyed by the hunters.”

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.

An investigation by the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority, ZPHGA and the safari industry at large has been initiated and a meeting has been called for all stakeholders to discuss the incident and find a resolution.

Adam Cruise has a philosophy degree in environmental and animal ethics from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He specializes in wildlife conservation and wildlife crime and has traveled throughout the continent documenting and commenting on the key conservation issues and crises that face the continent.

Changing Planet

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Adam Cruise has a philosophy degree in environmental and animal ethics from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He specializes in wildlife conservation and wildlife crime and has traveled throughout the continent documenting and commenting on the key conservation issues and crises that face the continent.