Cecil the Lion: His Life, Death, and Effects on Conservation

An interview with Andrew Loveridge, author of Lion Hearted, who knew Cecil well.

Posted Mar 27, 2018

“Until the lion has its own storyteller, tales of the lion hunt will always glorify the hunter.” —Zimbabwean proverb

Courtesy Andrew Loveridge
Source: Courtesy Andrew Loveridge

I recently learned of a new book by Oxford University zoologist, Dr. Andrew Loveridge, titled Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa's Iconic Cats. Being one of millions of people worldwide who were aghast and angry at Cecil's unnecessary death, some reasonably calling trophy hunting's gratuitous violence murder, I immediately reached out to Dr. Loveridge, who knew Cecil well, to see if he could take some time to answer a few questions about his book. I wanted to hear a "first-hand, up-close-and-personal" account of what happened to Cecil, what led up to his being slaughtered, and what the long-term effects might be. I was thrilled that Dr. Loveridge was able to answer these questions.

The basic facts surrounding Cecil's death and Dr. Loveridge's research are as follows: "In 2015, an American hunter named Walter Palmer shot and killed a lion named Cecil. The lion was one of dozens slain each year in Zimbabwe, which legally licenses the hunting of big cats. But Cecil’s death sparked unprecedented global outrage, igniting thousands of media reports about the peculiar circumstances surrounding this hunt. At the center of the controversy was Dr. Andrew Loveridge, the zoologist who had studied Cecil for eight years. In Lion Hearted, Loveridge pieces together, for the first time, the fascinating life and murky details of this beloved lion’s slaying."

Courtesy Regan Arts
Source: Courtesy Regan Arts

"I’ve become increasingly aware of this field. Having been a field biologist and behavioural ecologist for many years it seems to me there is no question that mammals and birds (and perhaps even many vertebrate taxa) are anything but highly sentient and we should treat them with care and recognise they have an intrinsic value and move away from commoditisation of wild animals."

Our interview went as follows:

1. Why did you write Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa's Iconic Cats?

The killing of Cecil the lion just outside Hwange National Park by a trophy hunter caught the global public’s attention to a degree that is unprecedented for an animal/ environmental story. Between July and September 2015 Cecil was mentioned in 94,000 print media articles and 695,000 social media posts. With this kind of attention focused on the species that the WildCRU research team and I had been studying for 20 years this seemed the perfect opportunity to raise awareness about the threats that African lions face. My motivation was to tell the story through the lens of my own experience and the stories of individual lions that I’ve studied. There is an extensive scientific literature on lions (to which the WildCRU team has contributed significantly), but much of this is inaccessible to the general public. My experience engaging with the public and media in the months after Cecil’s death suggested that, beyond the basics, people were largely unaware of the pressures lions face and conservation needs of the species. For instance it is a common misconception that lions are relatively common (actually populations have declined by 43% in the last 20 years) others were astonished (and appalled) that trophy hunting of lions was legal in many African countries. I want the book to highlight these and other issues.

You clearly knew Cecil as a sentient being and an iconic individual. What was your reaction when you learned he'd been shot -- trophy hunted -- with an arrow and didn't die for around 12 hours? 

Learning about the behavioural ecology, particularly of long-lived species, often hinges on monitoring individuals over long time periods. This was the case with Cecil, a lion whose life, behaviour and place in lion society the WildCRU team and I had studied for 7 years.

Scientists are taught to be objective observers, but this is not the human condition -- we’re hard wired to engage emotionally and it is difficult (and perhaps perverse) to reduce a study animal entirely to a series of numbers on a datasheet. A few months before he was shot I sat in a vehicle a few meters from Cecil and he hardly paid us any notice. He was completely habituated to vehicles having lived in a photographic safari area most of his life. He was trusting and at ease with the presence of people and in retrospect it is obvious that he did not stand a chance when hunters Bronkhorst and Palmer shot him with an arrow. 

It is troubling when an obviously sentient animal dies in cruel and callous circumstances. The mistreatment of Cecil was even more distressing given how well he was known and the fact that he was so obviously habituated to people.

What are some of the major messages of your book?

Lions are complex to conserve in poor African countries where conservation needs conflicts with development and growing populations of impoverished people. Human populations will double from 1 billion to 2 billion in the next 50 years, putting ever more pressure on remaining wild habitat. The future of lions hinges almost entirely on long-term protection of their habitat. If we want to see wild animals and wild places in Africa in the future we need to rethink how conservation is implemented, moving away from the ‘if it pays it stays’ paradigm to one where conservation is heavily subsidised, ideally as a global priority. We also need to re-evaluate how we interact with nature and start treating it as a priceless treasure rather than a resource to be exploited.

Why do you think that the killing of Cecil angered so many people worldwide, including many who had never before paid attention to, or did much about, such premeditated cruelty? Was it that it was clear that he had suffered a lot before dying, was it because of the way he was killed by a rich American dentist and the killer's nonchalance and arrogance, or a combination of these and other factors?

I examine the phenomenon and motivations behind the public reaction to Cecil’s death in Lion Hearted. To somewhat summarise this: there is an increasingly large segment of western society that cannot comprehend the motivation for killing animals for pleasure, let alone killing obviously sentient, intelligent and social animals like lions or elephants. I believe this was is a significant factor driving much of the public indignation. Other reasons are the lion was named (we identify more easily with individuals), perpetrators were identified, the dubious circumstances surrounding the activity, and the cruelty of the act. Once the perpetrators had been identified and allegations of previous misconduct were unearthed by the media, their lack of remorse also contributed to the sense of moral outrage.

Did the killing of Cecil have much of an effect on curtailing trophy hunting and the future protection of lions and other animals?

Hunting is deeply entrenched in the philosophy of African conservation, game (or hunting) reserves having been established long before strict preserves or national parks. It is also a major part of the conservation strategies of a significant subset of African countries. As such it will not be simple to dislodge. The solution is to give African countries better alternatives for conservation, and this may simply mean wealthy countries (or even wealthy individuals) subsidising conservation for the foreseeable future.

Given the vast majority of trophy hunters are from the USA and Europe, I believe that change will come from the evolving trade policies of western countries which restrict trade (including importation of hunting trophies) in endangered and threatened species. The Cecil incident put all of this very much under the spotlight and increasingly into the public discourse. 

I'm a strong supporter of the growing field of compassionate conservation. Do you think that those who advocate for compassionate conservation can play a role in the future protection of lions and other animals? [I write more about compassionate conservation in "Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age," laying out its four basic principles and other matters with which it's concerned, and in "Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion."]

I’ve become increasingly aware of this field. Having been a field biologist and behavioural ecologist for many years it seems to me there is no question that mammals and birds (and perhaps even many vertebrate taxa) are anything but highly sentient and we should treat them with care and recognise they have an intrinsic value and move away from commoditisation of wild animals.

Who is your intended audience?

I wrote this book for a general audience. It is largely autobiographical and it is deliberately not a science book, though it contains facts and scientific findings about lion behaviour and conservation. I have tried to use my own experiences as an African field biologist and the stories about study lions to provide a lens through which to view the issues surrounding lion conservation and the challenges conservationists face. It is to some extent also about the evolution of my own viewpoint away from ‘sustainable use’ as a conservation tool and my growing scepticism that this is a viable way for modern society to interact with nature. 

What are some of your current and future projects?

A big focus of WildCRUs work is working with local people to find ways for them to co-exist with large predators without resorting to lethal control. We have established a ‘Lion Guardians' programme which employs local people to protect both lions and people and livestock in human communities surrounding Hwange National Park. So far we have reduced the incidence of livestock loss to predators by 50%, which in turn has reduced the need to kill predators in retaliation. I mention this programme and problems people face in Lion-Hearted.

With Professor David MacDonald, Dr. John Vucetich, and other colleagues I have been working on an ethical evaluation of lion trophy hunting. This has been an exciting and revealing project that has helped me to better understand the interplay between lion conservation and ‘sustainable’ use. We should be submitting this for publication in the peer reviewed literature in the next week or so. 

Conserving habitat and wildlife landscapes is critical to the future of African conservation. We are using ecological data we have collected from study lions, particularly data from GPS such as the one Cecil was wearing to develop landscape models that will allow conservation managers to prioritise the most important habitat linkages between protected areas. We have had some great reactions to this initiative from managers, particularly in Botswana.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Conservation of species like lions, elephants, chimps, gorillas, and others is a global responsibility. We can’t just leave it to cash strapped African governments with their many pressing humanitarian priorities and limited tax base to cover the significant costs of conserving species that global society values (and often because of poverty and the danger many of these species pose, African citizens don’t). The ethos of sustainable use to generate revenue to cover the costs of conservation has largely failed (simply because it can’t generate enough revenue to cover the costs and is prone to corruption and mismanagement). If we want to conserve the remaining wild places of the world we need to move to a position where conservation is subsidised, perhaps through international aid or philanthropy. It is a model that is already showing significant promise across Africa. Ultimately it makes sense to do this as increasingly degraded environments further impoverish Africans. 

Killing animals "humanely" in the name of conservation remains incredibly inhumane

“Lions are one of the most beloved animals on the planet,” Loveridge observes. “They are the national symbol of no fewer than fifteen countries. . . . Surely, we can think of a better way to save the wild animals we love besides killing them.”

Thank you so much, Andrew. I truly appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions from your perspective as someone who knew Cecil well and as a participant observer of conservation efforts to save large cats and other animals. It's incredibly distressing that Africa's lion populations have shrunk by around 43% in the last 20 years. In an increasingly human-dominated world, I hope people will begin to think about and use non-lethal methods to foster peaceful coexistence among humans and other animals globally. Killing animals in the name of conservation has to stop

References

Marc Bekoff. The Psychology and Thrill of Trophy Hunting: Is it Criminal? Psychology Today, October 18, 2015.

Marc Bekoff. Rather Than Kill Animals "Softly," Don't Kill Them at All. Psychology Today, March 1, 2017.

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