Hwange, Zimbabwe: Cecil the lion would have known instinctively that one day he would meet a bloody end. The wilds of Hwange national park, in the far western corner of Zimbabwe, where he lived his 13 years, are a brutal place. Male lions are constantly on the lookout to extend their territories and force out rival prides.
Cecil bore the scars of many fights on his mammoth frame — and even an animal as impressive as he could not hold on to his hunting grounds forever. Yet when death came, it was not the result of a rival’s teeth or claws, but an arrow fired from the compound bow of a Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer, who is believed to have paid $50,000 (Dh183,647) for the privilege.
Cecil limped on for another 40 hours before he was found once more by the men and dispatched with a hunting rifle. The 220kg animal was skinned and decapitated. When his body was recovered by the team of British-led researchers who had mapped his movements for nearly a decade, it was a headless skeleton — picked clean by hyenas and vultures — surrounded by vehicle tracks and bloodstained sand.
“You could tell it was a lion,” says Brent Stapelkamp, one of the team, “but everything had gone.” That included the GPS collar that Stapelkamp and his fellow field researchers had fitted Cecil with to plot his progress around the national park.
Contrary to some media reports, the tag has not been recovered, and at the time of death abruptly stopped emitting both satellite and its backup VHS signal, which was monitored by the Hwange Lion Research Project as part of Oxford University’s world-renowned Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. It is presumed destroyed.
While working that GPS tag recorded every detail of Cecil’s rise to become the king of lions in Hwange.
Cecil was one of around 100 animals fitted with the collar in the 14,650 sq km national park, formerly the 19th-century hunting grounds of Ndebele warrior-king Mzilikazi, which is estimated to be home to around 450 lions.
Stapelkamp, a 37-year-old Zimbabwean who has worked for the project for nine years, remembers when a young Cecil walked across their radar back in the winter of 2008, accompanied by his brother. Researchers estimated the pair were born around 2003 and had left their pride to seek out new territory — something males do when they reach about three-and-a-half years of age.
The pair were first spotted in the southern boundaries of the park near a watering hole called Magisihole — which translates from the local dialect as “white man’s pan”. As a result, Cecil was named after Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia. His brother was called Leander, after Sir Leander Starr Jameson, another prominent British colonialist who once helped rule the country.
Despite such grand names, Stapelkamp remembers the pair as “very sheepish”. “They were on the radar and we knew when they were around but they were very nervous. Only when they became more confident and moved into one of the main study sites we decided to collar them for the first time.”
Once fitted, and provided the battery was not exhausted — his tag would give off his coordinates every two hours. Cecil was on his fourth collar at the time of his death; in order to replace them, the team would have to trap and shoot him with a tranquilliser dart.
In 2009, Cecil and Leander strayed into a different part of the national park, which was overseen by an old grizzled lion called Mposu and his sons; one of them, a young lion called Judah, was of equal magnificence to Cecil — although he too fell victim to poachers back in 2012.
A fight broke out between the rival families, during which Leander was killed and Mposu badly injured. Cecil, nearly fully grown, was forced into the south-eastern corner of the park, near to the Linkwasha safari camp. That, says Stapelkamp, is where he flourished.
“He became dominant there for a long time, and at one point he had 22 lions under him, which is about as big a pride ever gets in Hwange.”
Cecil became the star attraction of the park, a swaggering presence whose black-streaked mane featured in the photograph albums of thousands of visitors lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him. Sometimes, it was not difficult. Lions typically have a range of around 300km, but the size of Cecil’s pride and availability of buffalo and impala meant he often did not have to stray very far.
Such was his sheer bulk that Cecil was also unafraid of humans. Indeed, safari trucks regularly had to swerve off the road to give his prostrate form a wide berth.
“That lion was so amazing because people could get quite close,” says Johnny Rodrigues, the 65-year-old head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force who saw Cecil in the wild three times, most recently shortly before Christmas.
“His family would walk alongside him like little soldiers and just the way he carried himself you could see he was king of the jungle. It is such a pity to lose that iconic animal.”
Rodrigues says that Cecil is the 24th collared lion from the park to be shot in the past nine years.
“When you have seen him and you have seen what happened to him, it leaves a taste in the mouth I really can’t describe.”
With rivals always snapping at his heels, even a lion as statuesque as Cecil could only maintain a hold over the area for so long. Two-and-a-half years ago, he was displaced by two young males and forced into an area of grasslands known in Afrikaans as the vlei, on the eastern fringes of the park. Here, he teamed up with another old lion, one year his junior, called Jericho, and together began re-establishing a pride.
“They are not related but formed an alliance and took over the whole area,” says Stapelkamp, who last month took the final photograph of Cecil and Jericho lounging in the grass together. “They were still dominant when he died.”
There is concern over what will happen to Cecil’s pride of three lionesses and six cubs without his protection.
On Tuesday, Professor David Macdonald, who founded the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, said Cecil’s death would lead to a “cascade” of others. However, Stapelkamp says that a confirmed sighting had been received yesterday and they were alive and well.
Jericho’s pride, however, have yet to be seen.
In his final weeks, Stapelkamp noticed from the GPS tag that Cecil was spending a lot of the time outside the national park boundary, straying across the British-built railway line which runs from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. This was where he was lured to his death. It is believed a dead animal was dragged there by the poachers on the back of a pickup truck as bait, then left overnight with a spotlight shining down on it.
“It was new to him, but we thought he was just following females and we didn’t think anything was untoward,” says Stapelkamp.
“The battery on Jericho’s collar had died, and we were a little concerned and always asking the safari guys if they had seen these lions. “Then I realised that Cecil’s collar hadn’t sent any GPS coordinates for a couple of days. I thought it was a battery issue and made a mental note to try and catch him the next time I saw him. Then, a few days later, I got a visit from a safari guy at home saying he had heard a rumour that Cecil had been killed in that area.”
He immediately sent Cecil’s final GPS coordinates to the national park investigators, who found the body.
Prof Macdonald said: “Cecil was a glorious male lion, with a fascinating family history, as he maintained a large pride. Just a few months ago, we were thrilled to watch him at close quarters in the field, and so his seemingly illegal death is heartbreaking.”
It is a testament to those conservationists who seek to protect the Hwange lions that we are able to know so much about Cecil’s life. His death, however, is an act far more senseless and brutal than anything nature could ever conceive.