FOR 13 years, the lion tread the protected grounds of the largest national park in Zimbabwe.
BY Justin Moyer
He was a familiar sight on the road for those on safaris; the king of the jungle – or, at least, the savannah — who could reliably be seen walking down the road with his family. Like SeaWorld’s original Shamu or the National Zoo’s Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, Cecil was a animal who needed no last name — a great beast known not just for his majesty, but for his attitude.
But now, lured off the grounds of the park and killed by hunters, Cecil is gone. And the death of one of Zimbabwe’s most famous lions has set off a scandal in a nation still reeling under the corrupt government of President Robert Mugabe.
“He was beautiful — one of the most beautiful animals you’d ever see,” Johnny Rodriguez, of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “…Nine times out of 10, doing the safari drive, you’d come across him walking with his family.
He was one of the animals it was guaranteed you were going to see.
Thousands have seen him. Instead of protecting it — a good marketing tool — they go ahead and kill it.”
Rodriguez, who said he has been involved in conservation in Zimbabwe in the past 16 years, spoke of a compromised system in which Zimbabweans and foreign hunters dispose of prized, even iconic, animals in the name of short-term profit as the government does nothing and locals suffer. It’s a system, he said, that isn’t just bad for the planet, but makes little economic sense. Cecil, unfortunately, is just another data point.
Cecil was also tagged with a GPS collar and part of an Oxford University study of the impact of hunting in the area around Hwange National Park.
Rodriguez said those complicit in the hunt included two Zimbabweans: Honest Mpofu, a “concession holder” – a party who, more or less, has a license to bring hunters to a particular area — for the hunt, and Theo Bronkhorst, founder of Bushman Safaris Zimbabwe.
“Most of the hunters are unethical,” Rodrigues said, pointing out that few speak out against such practices in a nation where journalists sometimes face reprisals. “It’s grab while you can, make money.”
Mpofu could not be reached for comment; messages to Bushman Safaris were not immediately returned.
In a statement, the Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides Association (ZPHGA), “an association dedicated to the persual [sic] of ethical and sportsman like hunting and guiding in Zimbabwe, according to its website, said one if its members was involved in the hunt, but condemned Cecil’s death.
“It is with regret that we have to inform the public that Cecil the Lion, an Iconic figure to the Photographic sector, lodges in Hwange, guides in Hwange and general public that have met him in the past 13 years in Hwange was recently killed outside the park on private land on a safari,” ZPHGA posted to Facebook.
“One of the [professional hunters] on the hunting permit is a member of ZPHGA. There is an investigation ongoing at this time.
We are awaiting all relevant documentation for verification.”
Whether Cecil’s killing was legal or not, its impact will immediately be felt, researchers said.
The disappearance of a top lion often leads to carnage.
Another male lion will likely kill Cecil’s offspring, then breed with the mothers of Cecil’s slain cubs to create his own pride.
“Next male that comes along will kill cubs so he can bring women into heat,” Rodriguez said. “It’s so upsetting.
The amount of research being done on this lion — now, it’s back to square one. It’s money poured down the drain.”