Cecils death could spark a global rethink on how to protect lions ending Africas dependence on hunting revenues to sustain wildlife habitats and crucial conservation projects
The tiny lion cubs bounce down the dusty track alive with curiosity about their new world from their inquisitive faces to the tips of their tails. This new life is a symbol of the surprising good that has stemmed from the tragic death of their grandfather, Cecil.
Cecil, killed by US dentist Walter Palmer one year ago, has 13 surviving sons and daughters and 15 known grandcubs so far. They, like Cecil before he died, have survived brushes with death.
But the researchers who have closely observed Cecil and his kin for the last 17 years are hoping for an even greater legacy than Cecils offspring: a global rethink of how to protect lions in the 21st century, following the loss of 90% of the big cats in the previous 100 years.
I think Cecil is the biggest global wildlife story there has ever been, says Prof David Macdonald, director of Oxford Universitys Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (Wildcru) which runs the project, and who has analysed the media coverage. It went viral in a way that was unprecedented.
The result was donations of over $1m from 12,000 individuals to Wildcru, which relies solely on benefactors. Now, says Macdonald: We are hoping to make the Cecil moment become a Cecil movement.
Cecil, easily identified by his distinctive black mane, lived in Hwange national park in Zimbabwe and with another male, Jericho, maintained two prides of lionesses. But on the evening of 1 July 2015, data from the GPS collar he was wearing shows he wandered out of the park to explore part of his usual territory.
Elephant meat left as bait attracted him to a spot where Palmer waited. He shot him with an arrow, but only wounded the lion. After 11 hours of tracking, a second arrow dealt the fatal blow. Cecils corpse would then have been beheaded, skinned and salted. The trophies were later confiscated by the Zimbabwean authorities and the hunter guiding Palmer is due in court in September, charged with failing to prevent an illegal hunt.
Andrew Loveridge runs Wildcrus Trans-Kalahari predator programme, which covers Hwange national park, and is dismissive that this kind of hunt is sport: These lions dont run away from hunters. They are not a challenge to kill.
Loveridge first saw Cecil in 2007: He was about five and he was a very, very good-looking lion: very good condition, very confident. Trophy hunting is common in Hwange, so Loveridge was upset but not surprised when Cecil was killed: Its happened so often, but there is still a sick feeling in your stomach. You have had all these experiences with this animal and you get to know them really well.
Macdonald says: One feels appalled at something so stunningly beautiful being so needlessly shot. It was heartbreaking. The motivation to take pleasure in such an activity is beyond my personal comprehension.
But Cecil had diced with death before, in 2013. We were watching Cecil move out across the park towards the hunting concession, recalls Macdonald. We could see the guys from the concession driving their vehicles up and down along the edge of the park. We are meant to be impartial observers, but you cant help but feel a sickness in your stomach when you see this guy is wandering in that direction. But on that occasion he turned around and we breathed a sigh of relief.
One irony of Cecils death is that the Hwange project would not have existed at all but for trophy hunting. In the late 1990s there was a hunting quota of 60 lions a year and, horrified at the overkill, the late British hunter Lionel Reynolds begged Macdonald to set up a research project. There probably werent that many [male lions] in the area at the time, said Macdonald.