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 Robert Mugabe.
“He was beautiful — one of the most beautiful animals you’d ever see,” Johnny Rodrigues 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.”
Rodrigues, 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.
As the Guardian reported, Cecil wasn’t just special because he was beloved by safari-goers; he 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. This made tracking his final days possible. And like Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather,” it turns out that assassins — at least one of them reportedly European or North American — struck after tricking Cecil into leaving his safe home. The hunters reportedly led Cecil off of the grounds of the park with bait, shot him with a crossbow, then tracked him for two days before shooting him, decapitating him and taking his skin. Rodrigues said this process was “illegal.”
“What hunter, what sort of demented person, would want to kill a magnificent adult lion, known to and photographed by all the park’s visitors?” Luis Muñoz, a spokesman for the Spanish conservation organization Chelui4lions, told the Guardian. “We’re ashamed of the fact that in Spain there are rich madmen who pay for the pleasure of killing wild animals such as lions.”
The hunter who killed the lion has not been named. The Guardian and other outlets said he was Spanish; the Telegraph talked to an individual who identified him as “North American.” Rodrigues couldn’t confirm the identity of the foreigner, who allegedly paid more than $75,000 for a chance to kill the lion, but named two Zimbabweans complicit in the hunt: Ernest Mpofu, the son of Zimbabwe’s minister of transportation and 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.”
Rodrigues said that Mpofu and Bronkhorst have been arrested and face trial next month. 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 Web site, 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 children, 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,” Rodrigues 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.”