A year after the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, Shelley Cox reports on what his death taught us
The earliest recorded depictions of lions were painted on the walls of caves some 32,000 years ago. Ancient Greek storytellers used this majestic big cat in fables to represent bravery and courage. The species has been used for centuries as a symbol of power, royalty and stateliness.
But the human connection to the so-called ‘king of beasts’ is far more than emblematic. In the late Pleistocene era, an estimated 10,000 years ago, the lion was one of the most widespread large land mammals after humans. Today, there are just over 20,000 lions in Africa, a population decline of an estimated 42% over the past 21 years alone — a frightening statistic. The reality is that in another 20 years or so, we could be facing their extinction.
Keeping a balance
Losing the lions would have a devastating impact on the balance of Africa’s fragile ecosystems. Lions are predators. Their elimination would result in a potential overpopulation of prey and herbivores, leading to the obliteration of vital vegetation upon which other species rely to survive.
The extinction of this magnificent species would also have an equally serious effect on our ability to learn from our natural surroundings. Through research and experience with animals, people can absorb valuable lessons about survival, compassion and empathy. In 2005, for example, three lions rescued a 12-year-old girl from abductors in south-west Ethiopia, and this tale does not sit in isolation. Dr Jane Goodall believed that science had to become more empathetic or it would miss crucial aspects of what we were actually studying.
Like humans, lions are social and dynamic. A long-term study in Hwange National Park, headed by Dr Andrew Loveridge of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), shows that lions tend to gather in family units called ‘prides’. A pride is comprised of closely related adult females (led by one or two adult males) who develop complex bonds that allow them to cooperate in territorial defence, hunting and cub rearing.
Loveridge and his team have reported that the size of a pride’s territory depends on the quantity of prey available: small where game is abundant, and expansive when wide areas are required to hunt for their next meal. The number of lions in each pride is similarly determined by the richness of food and water sources. Lions use waterholes as a series of larders, moving constantly from one to another to avoid emptying their food store, which is why the best place to observe them is close to a large waterhole.
A pride generally includes a couple of males, referred to as a ‘coalition’, who will oversee the protection of their fellows and territory. Unlike young lionesses, most males must eventually leave in search of a new unit in a process known as ‘dispersal’. The Hwange Lion Research Project’s findings suggest that most leave their pride at around 36 months old, but they might depart earlier if the pride’s social system is disturbed, for instance, if the dominant male is killed.
If the dominant male lion is removed, either by human conflict or by a trophy hunter, the resulting cascade of consequences can result in the demise of many more lions in the pride. The destabilisation of the initial coalition can trigger the infanticide of cubs as well as the death, or eviction, of the surviving males. Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU, refers to this process as the perturbation hypothesis of unintended consequences. The theory postulates that the killing of individuals may negatively affect the whole pride in various behavioural, physical, immunological or other ways. This draws attention to the devastating impact of sport and trophy hunting on pride dynamics and the species as a whole.
What we learnt from Cecil
In July 2015, on the outskirts of Hwange, the death of one male lion — shot using a bow and arrow and later a rifle by an American big-game hunter — forever changed the voice and face of conservation. Cecil had formed a coalition with another male lion called Jericho, and together they maintained a large territory in the central-eastern section of the park. His death drastically affected the pride’s relations and territorial extent. There now appears to be a crossover of boundaries between five or six groups. Jericho has formed a new pride; the pride’s original females have moved into a smaller territory; and Cecil’s seven surviving cubs live precariously with no male to protect them.
Considering Macdonald’s perturbation hypothesis, it is something of a miracle and a story of hope that the pride’s females have been able to keep their cubs alive and their group intact. They have also managed to avoid conflict with other lions by continuing to move up to 30km a day.
Using the lion as a point of study, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has identified three major threats to Africa’s wildlife: habitat loss, the bush-meat trade and human-wildlife conflict. All three are inextricably linked to our exploitation of natural resources.
An article released last September by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) shows that the number of African lions is declining in all but four countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Data from the study revealed that populations in these countries survived partly “because of the proliferation of reintroduced lions in small, fenced and intensively managed and funded reserves.”
It concluded that increased intervention efforts were required to maintain populations in most large lion conservation units, and warned that “unless political and funding commitments are scaled up to address the mounting levels of threat, lions may disappear from most of Africa.”
Cecil’s death has had a large impact on wildlife conservation as a whole. A number of policies were swiftly brought about as a result of his killing, which could potentially have a long-term effect on curbing illegal hunting and poaching activities across the globe:
August 2015 More than 42 airlines place bans on wildlife trophy shipments on their carriers.
September 2015 The CECIL Act (Conserving Ecosystems by Ceasing the Importation of Large Animal Trophies Act) is introduced in the United States House of Representatives. The Act prohibits the import or export of any animal under consideration for inclusion on the threatened or endangered species list.
November 2015 The United States House of Representatives passes the Proposal of the Global Anti-Poaching Act.
November 2015 The French government announces a ban on the importation of lion trophies.
January 2016 The African lion becomes protected under the United States Fish & Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Act.
While many saw Cecil’s death as an opportunity to increase the debate on the sport and trophy hunting of wild animals, others have recognised that the global outcry has the potential to bring about a more holistic approach to conservation.
Another global outcry is the call to end canned hunting (where lions are bred for the bullet and kept in a confined area to be pursued and killed) and cub petting (where they are kept in captivity for leisure activities such as walking with lions and cuddling cubs). According to the Blood Lions campaign, there are currently about 8000 predators held in cages or confined areas, with no evidence that this is contributing to the long-term protection of the species. On the contrary, according to Blood Lions, the facts suggest that the captive-bred industry is promoting the illegal trade in lion bones, a growing alternative to the use of tiger bones in traditional Chinese medicine.
In an effort to shut down the captive-bred lion industry, Ian Michler of Blood Lions has been recruiting the support of key players worldwide, such as Ker & Downey Botswana, African Bush Camps and Africa Albida Tourism, to oppose the above-mentioned activities.
The fight goes on
Never before has intervention on a global scale been more necessary to fight the extinction of a species. As lion researcher Brent Stapelkamp states: “The future of our most iconic animal requires the assistance of the international community to provide adequate funding for policy change to ensure the survival of Africa’s endangered wildlife.” To this end, a new initiative, called World Heritage Species, is fast gaining momentum in its efforts to protect certain species through a World Heritage status.
Shelley Cox works for the Conservation & Wildlife Fund. Huge thanks go to African Bush Camps, Andrew Loveridge at WildCRU and Brent Stapelkamp for their support and help with compiling this article. All photographs are taken at Hwange NP, Zimbabwe.
Facts about lions
Height 1.2m (males)
Length About 3m (males). 45cm for the head, 150cm from the neck to the tail and 90cm for the tail
Weight 330-500lb (150-227kg) (males). In general, female lions are smaller than males
Lifespan 10-14 years
Top speed 50mph (81km/hr), for short distances
Status According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: West African lions are Endangered; South African lions are Threatened
Group name Pride
Mating season Throughout the year
Gestation Around 110 days
Litter size 3-4 cubs
Young cubs are vulnerable to predation by hyena, leopard and black-backed jackal. They begin hunting at about 11 months but remain with their mother for at least two years.