By Jacalyn Beales
In early July 2015, Zimbabwe lost one of its most revered icons, Cecil the Lion. Having lived his life in Hwange National Park, one of Zimbabwe’s most popular tourist destinations for viewings of the notorious lion, Cecil died a tragic death after having been “hunted” and shot for trophy by a Minnesota-based dentist named Walter Palmer. Cecil’s death took the world by storm, holding animal activists and global citizens alike on the edge of their seats as news reports, media frenzy and all-out chaos waged around the news that Zimbabwe’s favourite lion had been mercilessly killed by an American. It was a dark day for Zimbabwe, but the clouds would not linger for long. In fact, in the words of Dostoevsky, Cecil’s death was the spark which lit the forest on fire and ignited an international outcry for justice and retribution. As the clouds parted, the death of Cecil shone on every corner of the world like a glaring beam of light, unrelenting in its task of exposing the cruel underbelly of lion exploitation in Africa.
Tragic as his death may be, Cecil is not the first lion, nor will he be the last, to be hunted and shot for trophy. African lions are not technically “endangered;” in South Africa alone, there exists approximately 6000 captive-bred lions with over 160 lion ranches sprawled across the country. Wild lion populations, however, are decreasing at alarming rates. Lions are captive-bred for the purpose of being shot in what is called a “canned hunt,” in which lions are confined to a small space, lured to a vehicle and subsequently shot by an awaiting hunter. Each year, over 600 lion carcasses and trophies are exported out of Africa by wealthy hunters, and you’d be a monkey’s uncle to believe that bodies such as CITES or the IUCN are effective in helping to stop the slaughter. Those captive-bred lions sitting listlessly in cages across South Africa are the same lions which grew up being used for photo-props and cuddled in the cub-petting industry; the same lions which were exploited for lion-walking will eventually be shot in a canned hunt for trophy.
Surprising for some, the governments of many an African country do little if nothing to step in and stop lion exploitation. Wild lion populations across Africa continue to decline, with less than 30,000 existing in the wild whilst thousands are bred everyday in captivity for profit. Hunters traveling to several African countries pay upwards of $20,000 to bag a lion trophy; and that doesn’t even include all of the exportation costs. In 2012, canned hunting brought in roughly R807 million in profits for South Africa; the lion-bone trade in Asia can bring a lion breeder roughly $19,000/lion whilst one captive-bred lion used in exploitative activities over its life-time can be valued at well over $100,000. South Africa's joke of a biodiversity management plan does little to actually save lions and, with the hefty profits flowing to many African governments from trophy & canned hunting, there does not appear to be any incentive for such governments to put an end to lion poaching and captive-breeding. In other words, lions have little value for many corrupt individuals, associations and governmental/regulatory bodies unless there is a dollar amount assigned to each lion. When it comes to Africa's wildlife, money talks.
The reason Cecil became the doll of mainstream media, however, was not solely due to his notoriety amongst locals and tourists in Zimbabwe. Cecil was 13 years old, had roamed alone for many years before bumping into his pal Jericho and forming a coalition, siring cubs and strutting his stuff confidently for many a camera-happy tourist in Hwange. His dark mane, easy-going attitude and overall general affability made him a star and, just as many stars who have died tragically before him, Cecil's death was and remains important because of what he represents. His entire existence and subsequent demise — a death for trophy prolonged over two days with much suffering — made this large cat a martyr and an icon for lions everywhere. Cecil is every seal butchered, every dog killed for meat, every wild Panther shot, every shark killed, every dolphin poached, and every creature whose existence is infringed upon by human cruelty and greed. He represents every piece of wildlife under siege by human corruption, and it is this which makes Cecil the iconic lion the world has come to mourn and seek justice for. He is every lion ever shot, every cub ever pet for profit, every lion ever forced to perform for circus' or walks. Cecil will never fade, and neither will the tides which have turned for his kind. A storm is coming for those industries which exploit lions for profit, and soon no poacher, corrupt government official or meager hunter will be safe from the battering waves.