Cecil the lion – The struggle for sustainable wildlife conservation in Africa

Filippos ZofakisNews

ALion 1MSTERDAM – The world was outraged in early July, when the story about Cecil the lion came to light. A black-maned male, 13 years of age, was lured out of the Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe. Within the borders of the park, big game trophy hunting and poaching are illegal. However, on the other side, there is no protection for the animals.

These lions are endangered and fast becoming extinct, therefore they are supposed to be protected by law in Zimbabwe and are intented to be living within the confines of the wildlife conservation national park. Cecil, specifically, was part of a very rare species, with a distinctive black mane. He was killed after being illegally lured out of Hwange National Park with food by hunter Theo Bronkhorst, before Walter Palmer shot him with a crossbow, leaving the big cat to suffer for 40 whole hours and then finishing him off with a rifle.

Cecil was skinned, his head reportedly cut off as a trophy. It was a tragic end for the much-loved lion, if not an altogether surprising one. “A big lion like Cecil, if you ask us, we probably knew that is how he was going to die,” Stapelkamp says. Stapelkamp is an Oxford University researcher, who is part of an effort to monitor the lions in Zimbabwe and try to prevent their extinction. What makes this story even more interesting, though, is that Cecil was not just another lion. He was a favorite attraction among visitors to Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, one of the most beloved animals there, and was also wearing a tracking collar as part of the Oxford University research project.

 The killer

The man responsible for the killing of Cecil has sparked international outrage. The hunter is called Walter Palmer, an American dentist, and he allegedly paid around $50,000 to kill Cecil. Park officials claim the hunt was illegal, but Palmer insists he did nothing wrong. He has since gone into hiding. He also owns a 650-yard lodge in Zimbabwe, where he regularly goes on “vacation”, just so he can shoot and kill deer and other animals without moving out of his lodge’s front yard.

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Experts say: “We are quite sure that he knew exactly what he was doing”. He looked specifically for the biggest lion he could get his hands on and orchestrated the whole thing.”

The struggle to protect Cecil’s cubs

Now all that can be done is try to protect the cubs that Cecil left behind. There is a massive fear that the cubs could all be killed as part of a power struggle within the lion tribe. Jericho, who is their uncle, has abandoned the park after Cecil’s death and cannot protect them anymore, as he is now missing.

“The problem though is that lions practice infanticide as a species. The male looking to take over Cecil’s place and mate with the three lionesses could have crushed the cubs’ skulls as he looked to stake his claim”, a park source told the newspaper The Mirror. While the lioness mother was able to fend off the first advances, others will no doubt follow as more and more males compete to replace Cecil. Wildlife officials say there’s only a 1-in-20 chance that Cecil’s remaining cubs will survive, as the lionesses cannot protect them indefinitely. Already one of the remaining 8 cubs has been reported as having been killed.

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Zimbabwe: Not the best country to protect endangered species

Another issue is that there is no love lost for lions in Zimbabwe. While Cecil’s killing has infuriated many around the world, that feeling is not shared by everyone in his homeland. Journalists from CNN found a woman, named Margaret Sibanda, washing clothes on the side of a highway. Sibanda means lion in Sindebele, but she still does not like lions.

Most Zimbabweans think along the lines of her words:

“If a lion is killed, I really don’t care, because it destroys our cattle. The children in this part of Zimbabwe walk long distances to get to school. Lions and other animals are a threat.” The Sibandas say they get no money from the tourists or hunters that drive past their homestead on the way to the park. And Zimbabweans we’ve talked to say there are other things the world needs to focus on, like corruption and the cost of living in improverished parts of Africa. “Here in Zimbabwe we are starving, the life we are living here now is difficult. You can’t live,” says Charles Nkomo, another local. He says the world should care more about Zimbabwe’s people, not its lions.

What is even more shocking is that the ban on hunting in Zimbabwe was only enforced for a couple of weeks and now it is again perfectly alright in the eyes of their law.

But Oxford researcher Stapelkamp hopes the killing of Cecil will raise enough awareness to help the country create sustainable conservation that can

also help local communities. And he has just gotten a signal for Jericho, the other protected lion who is missing. It’s a faint “tuk tuk tuk” on the receiver. Stapelkamp hopes it, too, won’t fade away.

South Africa is also “in the game”

Even South African President, Jacob Zuma, made a statement recently, where he brushed aside the killing of Cecil, dismissing the animal’s death as “just an incident” and “an honest mistake.” He was also giggling. Pretty sure that has nothing to do with the fact that according to South Africa’s environment ministry, the hunting industry generates about 6.2 billion rand (US$485 million) directly each year for their government. Furthermore, travel related to wildlife contributes about 80% of total international arrivals there. However, what can someone expect from a country that did not even care about other human beings down there up until 1994 (Apartheid), much less for lions or other animals.

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And it’s not only the lions. Poachers have killed record numbers of rhinos in South Africa in recent years, but some conservationists believe the toll could be a lot higher than the official figures.

There are however some encouraging news, too. For example, Prince Harry of England is now waging war against rhino poachers. The 30-year-old had joined a specialist army unit on the South African game reserve of Kruger Park this summer, battling gangs of criminals as part of the government’s anti-poaching campaign, called Operation Corona. He was there on patrol for three months. Also, people such as @KinessaJohnson, an ex-US army veteran from the war in Afghanistan is currently working for the Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife organisation as an anti-poaching advisor.

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So not everyone is bad. after all.