Just weeks ago, Science magazine came out with a paper concluding that the earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. It is the age of the humans, the Anthropocene, where an expected 70-90% of all life will become extinct, largely due to the actions of humans: through overhunting, loss of habitat and habitat encroachment, and climate change.
On July 1, a beloved and well-known Zimbabwean lion, locally called Cecil, was killed by a hunter, and became a victim to this great extinction. The lion population in the 1940’s was estimated to be at 450,000, and today that number is 20,000, largely thanks to overhunting. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that about 600 lions are killed per year by trophy hunters. Cecil is now one of them. His decapitated, skinned body was found rotting on the land that he knew, where he had hunted, where he had slept, and where he had raised his family.
Cecil didn’t die because of starvation, which happens to lions more often than you would think. He didn’t die because he aged out of his dominant status, a result of a stronger, fitter male defeating him. He was killed because he was beautiful, and because he was the king of the jungle.
He died because the American dentist, Walter James Palmer, gets some sort of a thrill of killing living, breathing, magnificent creatures. He no longer lives because someone wanted to boast of how they tracked and defeated a lion, when really all they did was bait one from a vehicle, then safely shoot him with a crossbow, as only a coward could. He was killed because Palmer wanted a photo with a dead animal, and a head to add to his collection.
He died because Theo Bronchorst, the professional hunter who helped Palmer kill Cecil, and Honest Trymore Ndlovu, the landowner whose land borders the Hwange National Park, which Cecil was baited out of, wanted some money. They didn’t stop to think that Cecil the lion was a loved tourist attraction, and brought money into their community, much more than the $55,000 Palmer paid them to ensure a kill. They didn’t realize, or care, that his death also likely means that his six cubs and brothers would die too, as the new dominant male lion would want to wipe out the genes of their old rival, and ensure the females would mate with them. They didn’t care that the rapidly declining lion population needs strong lions like Cecil in the genetic pool. His 13 years of life came to an end after 40 hours of wounded misery.
Imagine the situation in which Palmer would have eyed Cecil from a safe distance. Cecil wouldn’t have been afraid of vehicles or humans, as he was used to tourists in safaris or jeeps. Imagine Cecil feeling the sharp blow from Palmer’s crossbow, powerful enough to cause pain, just like Cecil’s claws could, but not powerful enough to kill. Cecil died by gunshot nearly two days after being pierced by Palmer’s arrow, but not before hearing the loud blast of the gun, louder than the strongest rumble of thunder, or the stampeding of elephants.
Was this the act of a top predator, or of manliness? No, this was a craven act, as Palmer was merely shooting fish in a barrel. He was safe with his weapons, his companions, and the vehicle with which meat had been dragged, baiting Cecil from the safety of the National Park. Palmer wasn’t hunting because he needed food, or for religious purposes, nor was he in fear of losing his life. He had traveled over 8,700 miles to kill a lion, just for an easy and sick boost to his ego.
Cecil’s death has touched millions of people all over the world in unprecedented ways, myself included. Unlike the lions, tigers, leopards, elephants and other animals who have suffered similar fates, and whose deaths go largely unnoticed, Cecil had been outfitted by an Oxford University research study with a GPS collar since 2008. Because of this, his death was noticed. Perhaps his death will be the catalyst to place lions as endangered on the Endangered Species Act. Maybe more people will care, and more action will be created to save the lives of lions, and of other animals.
I leave you with the words of Jane Goodall: “Only one good thing comes out of this—thousands of people have read the story and have also been shocked. Their eyes opened to the dark side of human nature. Surely they will now be more prepared to fight for the protection of wild animals and the wild places where they live. Therein lies the hope.”
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