Banner image courtesy of “Trophy Hunting & Britain: A Case for a Ban,” June 2022
Below, is the full testimony (pages 133 – 137) of an anonymous source, a former member of the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) team that radio-collared and studied Cecil prior to him being killed.
This anonymous source’s first-hand account of the killing of Cecil 7 years on is an appropriate testimony, not only to the callous way in which American trophy hunter Walter Palmer et al took this pride male lion’s life for their own self-gratification and/or financial enrichment (the ethos of trophy hunters and the industry that panders to them in general), but also a testimony to why trophy hunting is a vacuous void, devoid of any moral or ethical compass that undermines Africa’s indigenous culture. That is why the long outdated, notion of a bygone era of colonial entitlement and the predominantly white foreigner’s self-proclaimed ‘right’ to kill African wildlife for sadistic entertainment as espoused by trophy hunting must end:
“The physical act of a white hunter coming in and going out on their exploratory adventure, to conquer and kill an animal – that act in itself rehearses the history of colonialism. That point is not lost on people who live in local communities, and it should not be lost on those of us from the country sending trophy hunters” (page 146) – Dr Chelsea Batavia, Senior Environmental Scientist
“When I started reading the narratives of trophy hunters, I was struck more than anything by the similarity with the narratives of terrorists when they talk about what they do” (page 151) – Professor Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology, Edge Hill University. Author, ‘Trophy Hunting: A Psychological Perspective’
The economic forces that drive the trophy hunting industry can be replaced with a balanced approach that enriches Africa’s own cultural identity and interaction with its native wildlife, free from the imposition of the destructive, greed based desire of the trophy hunting colonial mindset and its bloated lobby heavily financed by vested interests.
ANON – a former member of the Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU)
“I worked for close to a decade as a field researcher on the Hwange Lion research project in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The initial focus of the work was the impact of trophy hunting outside the park on the lions inside the park. There was a lot of darting, collaring and observational data to collect. I spent 7 days a week tracking lions, catching and collaring them and getting to know them. Soon that developed into a study of the conflict between people and lions, a subject I eventually specialised in.
Cecil was a very large mature lion in Hwange. He was special because very few male lions ever survive as long as he did, and thus a lot was made of his huge mane and the fact that it was black. The black mane is a genetic trait that is quite strong in Hwange lions, but very few lions survive long enough for it to present. Cecil was dominant over some of the best lion real-estate in Hwange and this too was the area best for tourists. That is why he was so well-known. He had large prides and he was seen daily by tourists. Cecil was very much in his prime when he was shot, despite him being 12 years old or so. The hunters made a case that Cecil was old and therefore past his prime, but that was not true. He was still breeding and in perfect condition. He was considered old because most lions are shot long before getting to that age. He was one of two males in a coalition. They were unrelated but had forged an alliance because together they were stronger.
On the night of the 1st of July 2015, a couple of professional hunters (PHs) and their client were sitting about 40 or 50 metres from a blind overlooking a dead elephant. Between 9 and 10pm Jericho, Cecil’s coalition partner, ran past the blind and started feeding on the elephant. Jericho was a very large lion in his own right and was about a year younger than Cecil. His saving grace was that he was blonde. Walter Palmer – the trophy hunter who shot Cecil – has subsequently said that he didn’t know about Cecil and hadn’t come to hunt Cecil specifically. However, the fact that they didn’t shoot Jericho while watching him feed for over an hour meant that they knew that a larger and darker lion – the traits a trophy hunter prefers – was still to come.
Cecil arrived about an hour later. Walter Palmer let loose his arrow. Cecil ran off wounded. The hunters left to go back to camp for the night. Normally when a client is about to shoot a lion from a blind, his professional hunter (PH) is ready too with his rifle. If the client’s shot doesn’t kill the lion instantly, then the PH shoots the animal to “secure it”. This is common practice because a wounded lion is dangerous to follow up and nobody wants to do it. The PH is professionally obliged to “back up” the client’s shot to avoid a wounded animal. In this case, however, Walter Palmer had told his PH not to back him up. The reason for this was that Walter Palmer was after Safari Club International’s bow-hunting record for a lion. If a rifle was subsequently used then the bow-hunting record would have been disallowed. So Cecil ran off wounded, and the hunters simply went back to camp.
In the morning, at around 9am, the hunters returned and tracked Cecil down. He was badly wounded and hadn’t gone far. Walter Palmer then finished him off with a second arrow. From statements made to police, we understand that when Palmer and the PH approached the lion they saw the collar and panicked. The PH said that he took the collar off and placed it in a tree before following his client. When he returned he said the collar was gone. We know from the GPS data that the collar was collecting, however, that they then gave that collar to someone who carried it around for a couple of days to mimic a lion’s movements in order to confuse us and presumably buy time to get the client out of the country. On the morning of July 4, the collar sent its last GPS point and was presumably destroyed. We never found it.
There was no permit for hunting a lion in that area. The PH had purchased a lion quota from another area. He was hoping to hunt Cecil and export it as one of the others shot elsewhere. Illegal practices such as those are relatively common-place.
During my time as part of the lion project, it happened maybe a dozen times that we know of. Usually the collar is destroyed and we only find it months later. In Cecil’s case he had a new satellite technology collar which meant all its data is sent to a server and even when the collar is destroyed the data is safe and accessible.
I became something of a pariah in Zimbabwe after the story died down. At first, when the story broke, I was the only person on the ground speaking to the press, and I was complimented by the authorities and WildCRU alike. However, when the hunting industry approached the government and told them that if they pressed for Walter Palmer’s extradition they would lose their industry, there was an about-turn.
Suddenly it was said everything was legal and no charges were pressed. I was left alone on the end of the plank, surrounded by sharks. I still had to go to meetings with the very landowners in the Gwaai Valley where Cecil had been shot where I was screamed at and accused of destroying the industry. I slept with a loaded rifle by my bed for many months, always waiting to hear the sound of a vehicle approaching our home at night. I have since been subjected to all sorts of abuse and character assassinations, including now having a file of everything I had ever posted on social media printed and given to Zimbabwe’s secret police, the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation), the Parks authorities, local chiefs and so on. I was banned from entering the park for over a year and forced to delete my Facebook page. I have had to keep a very low profile since.
The situation of lions today is difficult. There were 1.2 million wild lions in the 1800s. Now there are around 20,000. They are doing well in protected areas. They are under threat from habitat loss, though, as well conflict with livestock owners which includes retaliatory killing and – worryingly – preventative killings before they kill any livestock. Lion conservation is all about boundaries. On park boundaries, where mortalities are man-related, that is where we lose lions.
Much value is placed on the value of lions in terms of economies, both for hunting and photographic safaris, and that is very important. However, to me these are the least important of their three values. The other two are cultural value and ecological value. The cultural value of lions is all around for us to see. There was a premiership match a while ago between Manchester United and Chelsea. Three of the largest sports brands on earth and all three – the premier league being the third – have a lion in their logo. That doesn’t even describe the value that the lion represents to Africans which can hardly be quantified.
The most important aspect or value of lions, though, is their ecological value. It is very much like the value of wolves which people are now understanding when they were lost and then reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the US. Lions keep landscapes healthy, rivers flowing and arid areas regenerating whilst avoiding desertification. Simply put, lions keep browsing animals bunched in dense herds moving which avoids overgrazing. Savannahs are healthier with lions. The loss of lions would be a catastrophe for the people of Africa and for the globe to have lost the most iconic species on earth. Economies would suffer and ecosystems would have lost a key component that keeps millions of hectares of Africa from becoming desertified.
The 2015 IUCN Red Data analysis on lions reported that trophy hunting was one of the main contributors “to an astonishing decline of 42% of the continent’s total lion population.” Trophy hunting is detrimental because it targets the largest animals. With lions, trophy hunters target the males with the darkest manes too. In nature, if a male has those two traits – in other words, he is the largest and darkest male in the area – then he is the pride male. Period. So hunters are targeting the very animal that is maintaining pride stability and holds all the best genes. The loss of that individual is felt for months after his death and over a large area for many species including ours. When a pride is stable and the male is in tenure undisturbed, his male offspring usually leave the pride at about 3.5 – 4.5 years old. They often leave in coalitions and have had plenty of hunting experience to allow them to fight for a territory and take one over for themselves. They are considered adults and will avoid humans and their livestock as a rule. The daughters will tend to stay with their mothers and that continuity is the maintenance of a pride and their territory.
If a pride male dies naturally, in a fight for instance, the new male is probably stronger with some genetic advantage. He will kill all the cubs from his predecessor and very quickly mate with all receptive females and get his genes into the system as soon as he can. And rightly so, as he is the strongest male around now. If the pride male is hunted, though – and we know that trophy hunters target the pride males by virtue of the fact they are after the largest, darkest males – then the weaker males that couldn’t beat the pride male move in after the hunter has left with his trophy, and the stronger male’s cubs are killed and replaced with weaker genes. We have seen a situation where a coalition of four males in a pride were trophy hunted and up to 16 cubs and sub-adults were killed by new males after the fact. So we don’t just lose 4 males – we lose 20 lions altogether from that hunt.
Infanticide as I have described sounds all very clinical, but lionesses if nothing else are the best mothers alive and they hardly just sit and allow their cubs to be killed.
They either fight, in which case they too can be killed, or they flee. Africa’s parks are large but the lionesses will flee to the only place that an adult male won’t follow her to kill the cubs, and that is often amongst people. When they leave the parks to avoid infanticide and find themselves amongst people, they rarely find wild prey to live off.
So they may start killing livestock. I noticed this pattern many years ago and I know that WildCRU has the data but they won’t publish it for fear of upsetting the people that give them their permits to study lions – for example, the Parks department managers who receive money from lion hunting.
As a result, we are told that trophy hunting is not the largest source of lion mortality but that conflict with livestock is. This story shows that trophy hunting is in fact a major, if not the major, driver of that conflict. Ironically, the hunters that are responsible for the conflict spikes are often called in to deal with the “problem lions” with no mention of the fact that they caused it. We have had prides of lionesses birth 4 or 5 cohorts of cubs and not see a single one reach adulthood because they are caught in this cycle. No sooner have they moved out of the park and started killing livestock than they lose their cubs to snares and “problem animal” control. If the lionesses survive they now move back to the park without cubs to protect and mate with the new males. Their own cubs are born when hunting season comes around and those males are killed too.
And so the process repeats itself. All the time, lions are getting the blame and hunters are seen as saving the day. Conflict work is the hardest work of all, especially if you are trying to be sensitive to people and protecting lions. I have attended meetings where every man attending had an axe on his shoulder for me if the meeting went badly! Yet in Hwange, we know without a shadow of doubt that trophy hunting had the single most significant effect on lion mortality. As Dr Andrew Loveridge of Oxford University WildCRU has written, levels of hunting mortality exceeded deaths of lions in conflict with people or killed in wire snares set by poachers and also far outstripped natural levels of mortality. Other sources of mortality such as retaliatory and pre-emptive killing of conflict lions are often driven by trophy hunting too. So the total impact of trophy hunting is enormous.
Lions breed quickly and their numbers can recover very swiftly once hunting is stopped. We saw Hwange’s lion population nearly double in the 4 years that lion hunting was stopped. By allowing the pride males to mature, their protection means that lionesses lose fewer cubs to hyaenas. The sub-adults leave later when they are more experienced and can get a territory, rather than get chased around by adult lions until they too escape the park and predate on livestock – and end up being killed as a ‘problem’ animal.
What perhaps churns my stomach most are the prizes offered by groups such as Safari Club International. To win the highest Safari Club International award, it is estimated that a trophy hunter must kill more than 300 animals. This is one of the strongest arguments against trophy hunting. The hunting and killing of animals purely for ego is a colonial relic that has no place in modern humanity. Pro-hunters argue that if we stop hunting, then the lands that are set aside for it quickly turn to alternative, less lion-friendly land uses. Slave owners and traders used a similar argument to counter the proposed abolition of slavery. If you ban slavery without finding an alternative source of labour then you won’t have sugar in your coffee, they might say. But that was not an excuse to keep an inhumane system going. It was banned, and people were forced to find an alternative, and so will conservationists when trophy hunting is banned.
If you wait, though, then there is no incentive to change. I actually advocate for traditional hunting in protected areas believing that people too are key components of healthy ecosystems, and traditional hunting is a disturbance activity that keeps animals moving and avoids overgrazing. Trophy hunting, though, has no place in African culture. If we are to strengthen Africa’s appreciation and protection of their natural heritage, we must look for links to their cultures. Currently, trophy hunting makes traditional African hunting illegal, and we call them poachers – while rich foreigners come and kill the wildlife with a red carpet rolled out for their arrival. It is vile and has to be consigned to history. These animals should not be sold and hunted as a commodity, but rather they should be part of a strong cultural and ecologically healthy system.
To ensure the survival of lions, we need to get Africans to feel that the lions are theirs and not only there for the privileged foreigners to shoot. Often I hear that there are people who have signed a letter saying that the world should leave Africa to manage its wildlife the way it sees fit. I agree with that in principle. However when I read the list of names, especially from Zimbabwe, I see nobody who represents ordinary people. I see politicians with interests in the trophy hunting industry promoting hunting as “Africans managing their wildlife”. Trophy hunting has no place in African tradition. It is very easy to assemble corrupt people to sing the new song that the powerful trophy hunting lobby want to push, namely that trophy hunting is about promoting African self-determination.
I do believe Africans should decide how to manage their natural resources, but it is almost that they need to be allowed to re-learn what this means. All our park managers are trained by the colonial system under the “if it pays it stays” mantra. Let us instead promote a system change where self-confident Africans, who know what lions and other wildlife mean to them culturally, and without outside influences, decide what to do with their rich resources. That is paramount. The rest will come easily after that.
I have advocated for the lion to be declared the first World Heritage Species. This means not seeing it as a tax to ensure the survival of lions, but rather as a celebration of an animal that means so much to all of humanity. Brands that use lions for their marketing should come under pressure to pay into a fund that supports the types of work I describe above. Lions are important, but they are also the most efficient means of protecting large areas and a plethora of other species. If you give lions what they need, their prey will be looked after and their landscapes as well as the people that have to live with them.
It is time to ban trophy hunting, set up lion as the first World Heritage Species, and raise funds from businesses that use lions in their marketing. That money should be used to protect lion landscapes with less stick and more carrot, build up Africans in a way that they can explore what lions and their wildlife resources mean to them both culturally and ecologically, and empower them to make those decisions.”
Fascinating insight. Thanks for writing!