Cecil the Lion's Legacy of Conservation

Steve Backshall Cecil the lion

Originally appeared on The Huffington Post – 30/07/2015

This week, the papers and social network sites have been buzzing with horrified outrage at the tale of Walter James Palmer. This rich American dentist paid £32,000 to lure Cecil, Zimbabwe's best-known lion, out of his protected reserve and shoot him with a crossbow, before decapitating and skinning him. And through that one egomaniacal wanton, destructive act, he has inadvertently done more for global awareness and disgust towards trophy hunting than conservationists have achieved in decades.

In life, Cecil was the most important lion in his area. In death, he has suddenly become the most important lion in the world.

Cecil was already a pretty important cat. Dynamics within a lion pride are unusual; only around one in eight males make maturity, and far fewer than that will get to command a large pride like he did. With six lionesses and twelve cubs, he would have been the largest, strongest, most handsome mature male in his area. When you remove that top cat, all hell breaks loose. Either a more junior male will take command, in which case you can expect protracted bloody battles, or an outlying male will try to take over. The new male will systematically kill all the existing cubs in the pride; the lionesses will not become receptive to his advances until this infanticide is complete. When he shot Cecil, he may as well have trained his bow on every one of his twelve cuddly progeny.

Taking trophy individuals often has similar knock-on effects, regardless of the species. Hunters claim to only be taking animals that are past their prime, to be enforcing the 'survival of the fittest' by taking out animals beyond breeding age; yet somehow the trophy animals displayed dead on the front of hunting magazines are always prime specimens like Cecil, and hunters don't take along biologists to advise what impact a specific kill will have on population dynamics. 

They claim to be bringing in revenue that gives value to the animals, and may help protect the environment they live in, yet independent studies show native landowners in the area receive only $1-$3 a year in exchange for hunting rights, while the big bucks stay with the big game hunting firms, run by wealthy (often foreign) businessmen. Hunters are moving to using bows and crossbows to increase the 'sport', to make it more challenging. They describe being engaged in a noble battle of wits against their target, which requires Shamanistic knowledge of the environment, enhanced senses and stalking skills. Well, I've tracked wild animals on every continent, and they don't get any easier than lions. They're big, they leave bucketloads of sign, and they spend the whole day lying under a tree yawning. Of course, Cecil was even easier, as he had a radio collar on that told the hunters exactly where he was (though they tried to destroy that after beheading him). Oh, and they lured him out of his protected reserve with bait. The only way it could have been easier would be if it was a 'canned' hunt, where the animal would actually be in captivity, and drugged so the hunter simply cannot miss.

In life, Cecil was the most important lion in his area. In death, he has suddenly become the most important lion in the world. Every celebrity from Ricky Martin and Sharon Osborne to Lennox Lewis have taken to Twitter to shout foul play. Millions the world over are horrified, galvanized by his slaughter. Professor David Macdonald, from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University who were tracking Cecil said; "he hoped there would be a silver-lining to Cecil's death with an increase in support for his research". 

This current storm could make a difference. It could lead to restrictions or bans on the importing of animal trophies into the US, and even the richest hunters are less likely to shell out tens of thousands if they can't take the trophy home. If they know that all they'll have is that glory photograph of them stooped grinning over the dead-eyed corpse of their treasure... which is now likely to earn them widespread disdain.

So was Cecil genuinely more important than the hundreds of other lions who are trophy hunted every year? Well yes. He was Zimbabwe's best-known lion, a proud black-maned father killed by a coward, dying after 40 hours of agony with an arrow in his side. He had a name, a story, a character, a tale we can tell, understand and empathise with, and that is a powerful thing. We need people to find respect for animals, and to become their champions. 

In the last 50 years, we've lost nearly 95% of lions, from near half a million, to only around 25,000... yet lions are one of the wild cats that are doing best. Compare that to tigers, which are down to 3,000, and could easily go extinct in my lifetime. Cataclysmic problems that the world largely ignores, but a single animal with a whiff of fame, and everyone sits up and takes notice. I believe all of this is testament to the way that we the public consume media. Big numbers and problems baffle us. We want our news served to us like a soap opera. A single murder case can dominate the front pages for years, while a tragedy that kills thousands will have slipped from the papers within days. What is the passing of one majestic lion amongst the rapid disappearance of thousands of species... it is inconsequential. But if Cecil can be a poster child for greater regulation around trophy hunting, or encourage people to think it's not noble to kill animals for fun then he could be vitally important. Conservation organisations need to watch the unfolding drama with interest, and learn. 

We need to shed our naiveté and learn how to tell our stories so people will listen. Many environmentalists take the scientific approach that we should be focusing on ecosystems first, that single species are of no value; particularly not sparse large mammals. This is clearly not the case. 

I guarantee you won't get a celebrity-endorsed Twitter-storm about the destruction of seagrass and mangroves, but you might get it from the tale of Marvin the homeless manatee... We need to learn from this how to weave stories, to engage the public in the plight of wildlife. 

Conservation needs powerful friends, mass action and money, and icons and figureheads can be vitally important. If this tragic drama accomplishes any small part of this, then Cecil didn't die in vain.