Meet the Man Who Knew Cecil the Lion Best

Andrew Loveridge tracked Cecil for years before the lion was killed. He talks about his love for Cecil—and the plight of African lions.

When he was shot by American trophy hunter Walter Palmer in 2015, Cecil the lion became an instant media sensation, his death mourned around the globe by millions, the man who killed him branded a monster and eventually forced into hiding. It was, above all, the fact that Cecil was left to die a long, slow, agonizing death that so incensed the world.

In his new book, Lion Hearted, Andrew Loveridge, a research fellow at Oxford University in England and the man who knew Cecil better than anyone, tells the story of the lion he loved, as well as the wider issues facing these magnificent creatures.

Speaking from Oxford, he explains why Walter Palmer was the perfect hate figure; why banning hunting alone will not save African lions; and why Cecil’s death was a major turning point for the trophy hunting lobby.

You were the person who equipped Cecil with a radio collar. Describe that experience and how you felt, seven years later, when you heard he had been shot.

I collared him for the first time in 2007. He was a member of a two-male coalition that had moved into our study area. He was an amazing, big lion, but most of them are in that area. He became unique in that he was a long-term study. We studied him for seven years.

He lived in the tourists’ hub of Hwange National Park, so he became very well known to both the research team and to tourists. He became well habituated to vehicles, so you could approach him very closely and people could get fantastic photographs and videos of him.

The last time I saw Cecil was about a month and a half before he was killed. We were tracking him from his radio collar and found him sitting on the road. We sat about two meters away from him, enjoying being that close to a big lion, and he was completely unconcerned. Six weeks later, someone comes along with a bow and arrow and shoots him. It is incredibly distressing when an animal you’ve got to know for so long is subjected to a very, very painful death.

Cecil lived in the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Put us on the ground and explain the kinds of problems lions face there.

Hwange is in the far west of Zimbabwe, right on the Botswana border. It’s about 14,000 square kilometers, about the size of Northern Ireland. We have about 500 lions living there, so it’s quite a stable population. But around the edges of the park you have local people living a subsistence lifestyle with cattle and growing crops. And you have hunting concessions. They get hunting quotas to shoot lions, elephants, leopards, and other animals.

The threats that face lions are, firstly, that they come into contact with people. A lot of livestock is lost to lions every year around Hwange. These are very poor people and they get very irate and often those lions end up being killed. The other threat is trophy hunting and that is why we set up the project in the first place. There was a lot of concern that the quotas for hunting lions weren’t sustainable or realistic and, as it turned out, they weren’t. Around Hwange the biggest source of mortality, particularly for male lions, is trophy hunting.

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Trophy hunting got a terrible rap after the death of Cecil. But for the local people it is a source of income, isn’t it? Paradoxically, it also provides protected areas for lions. Talk us through these tensions.

You have to look back to the beginning of the 20th century when colonial administrations were allocating lands. They thought, “We want to protect wildlife because we like wild animals,” mostly because these guys were elite, upper class hunters themselves. That was the root of conservation in Africa. These areas were set aside for wild animals that would be hunted and that’s continued right through.

Some of those areas became national parks, where no hunting is permitted. But about 1.2 million square kilometers of land in Africa is set aside for hunting. These areas actually do protect wildlife, by protecting their habitat. Hunting also benefits economies, though not as much as hunters claim. It certainly benefits local Africans very little. A lot of the revenue is skimmed off by political elites.

You have reconstructed in forensic detail the events leading to Cecil’s death. Take us inside the crime scene and the attempted cover-up.

The first thing to understand is that hunting areas get quotas. Every year they are issued with a quota of animals of each species they are allowed to hunt. The area where Cecil was hunted didn’t have a lion quota, so they weren’t allowed to hunt any lions there. These guys came in and used an elephant carcass as bait.

I think they knew they were hunting in an area where there was no quota, so when they saw Cecil’s collar they realized that they were going to get caught and destroyed or disappeared it. Then they moved Cecil’s carcass. This happens quite often in the trophy hunting industry. They shoot an animal in one area but claim it from a quota in a different area. It’s called “quota swapping.”

Reports of Cecil’s long, drawn-out death particularly incensed world opinion. Yet you say the media also made misleading claims. Where do the facts lie?

This is one aspect people found incredibly difficult. This animal was shot with an arrow and took hours and hours to die, in incredible pain. Originally, the media claimed it took 48 hours for Cecil to die. We don’t know where that number came from. But because Cecil was radio collared we could tell exactly when he was at the site where he was hunted and follow his pathway until the time when the hunters went back and killed him. We could tell it was between 10 and 12 hours. He was mortally wounded and moved only about 300 meters in 12 hours, which is hardly any distance for a lion at all. He was clearly very badly injured.

We don’t know exactly what happened because the hunters aren’t going to tell us. We think he probably got shot with the arrow, ran maybe 20-40 meters, possibly into some thick vegetation. We think the hunters said, “He is going to die, so we’ll just wait until he’s dead from the arrow wound.”

Part of the reason for that is that Walter Palmer is a bow hunter and many hunters like him want to get their trophy recorded in a record book. One of the regulations for bow hunters is that the animal has to be killed with a bow and arrow. You can’t go and shoot it with a rifle later.

I can’t understand what motivates somebody to kill something that beautiful for pleasure. But to then say, “I’m going to leave this animal to die in pain from an arrow wound because I want to get my name in a record book,” is absolutely crazy. It was this mistreatment of a sentient animal that people found so outrageous.

You describe Walter Palmer as “the perfect hate figure.” Explain why, and how, in your view, the hunting guide, Theo Bronkhorst, became the fall guy.

Firstly, Palmer is a wealthy, white American, who makes no apology for the fact that he loves hunting and was unapologetic that he’d shot Cecil. He also had a prior record of dubious hunting activities. But Palmer basically got away with it. He left Zimbabwe, and the authorities didn’t follow up their threats to take him to court, although he is still being investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

His Zimbabwean guide, Theo Bronkhorst, was arrested and went to court. The court case was eventually thrown out, but he was never vindicated. He lost his hunting license and hunting business, so he ended up taking the fall. I don’t have any sympathy for him, but that’s the case. Palmer had his dental surgery picketed by demonstrators and his house vandalized, so he didn’t get away with no consequences.

Why do you think the global reaction to Cecil’s death was so intense, and why is it regarded as a “Twin Towers moment” for the hunting lobby?

Having a name was crucial. This was Cecil the lion and people could empathize with the individual. The fact that Palmer was identified in the story was also important. Many people in Western society view the welfare of animals as very important. In the U.K., for instance, there’s been a ban on fox hunting. Society is changing a lot, which explains why there was this wave of international outrage about killing Cecil.

It was then driven by social media. It started quite locally but then the story was picked up by nationalgeographic.com and that was one of the turning points. Jimmy Kimmel, the talk show host in the States, then broadcast it and it went viral. I don’t know of any other animal story that has had this level of impact. It exposed what hunting is all about, which is largely about money and a lot less about conservation than hunters would like us to think.

The “Twin Towers moment” quote was from a commentator called Ivan Carter, who is a hunter, saying this is a traumatic event that has changed everything for hunting. Membership of hunting organizations is in decline. A recent poll in the U.S. showed 65 percent don’t support hunting. So a big segment of society is saying this is something we are not comfortable with.

As a result, hunters are now a lot more careful about what they do. Many countries are also reviewing their policies on importing hunting trophies. The EU and U.K. have done that; France and Australia have banned the import of lion trophies. The U.S. decided to allow it and is being sued by conservation groups because of it. So there’s been a lot of change in the way governments choose to manage these things.

At the end of the book, you write: “Banning lion trophy hunting will not halt the decline of Africa’s lion populations.” What can be done instead? And what can our readers do to help save these magnificent creatures?

If you banned lion hunting the animals could still go extinct because the biggest threat to lions and other African wildlife is losing their habitat. At the root of that is human population. There are 1 billion people in Africa now. And in 50 years there will be 2 billion. They will need places to live, and food to eat, so there’s going to be conversion of wild land to agriculture. And that is the threat that will wipe out lions. It’s not enough to just focus on hunting. Better-managed hunting would help lions, but protecting their habitat is what is going to save them.

The other crucial thing is the way they interact with people. Around Hwange we lose about 100-200 livestock a year to lions. Those are poor people, who hate lions and will get rid of them if we can’t help with programs like the Long Shields Lion Guardian Program. The program employs local people to protect their villages from lions, but also to protect the lions. They encourage people to herd their cattle better. They also chase the lions using vuvuzelas, those plastic trumpets that football fans use. Lions are terrified of them and will run back into the park.

Ultimately, if we want to have wildlife in Africa, the world’s got to pay for it. Africa is a very poor continent and will have double the population of very poor people in 50 years. They’re not going to pay for conservation. So, we have to pay for it some other way. Get your readers to encourage their governments to support conservation. It doesn’t cost that much compared with, say, buying missile defense systems. It’s peanuts.

The other thing is private philanthropy. The African Parks Foundation of America is managing 15 national parks across Africa entirely by philanthropic donations, forming partnerships with governments to manage conservation. So privatization of conservation may be one way forward.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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