“I’m a-comin’, Cecil lad!”
Few people today remember Cecil the puppet sea serpent, who starred from 1949 to 1962 in various incarnations of the satirical “Beany & Cecil” radio and television broadcasts. Nominally produced for children, the “Beany & Cecil” shows were perhaps most appreciated by adults who recognized the hidden subtexts.
The sea serpent’s catch-phrase, however––“I’m a-comin’, Beany lad!”––echoes on.
Cecil, the dark-maned 13-year-old lion recently killed in Zimbabwe by Minnesota trophy hunter Walter James Palmer, may have been named after the fictional sea serpent, as some have reported.
More likely, Cecil was named after Cecil Rhodes, the diamond magnate for whom the ancient nation of Great Zimbabwe was designated “Rhodesia” in 1895, before reverting to self-identification as Zimbabwe in 1980.
Whoever Cecil was named for, what he died for was competitive blood lust, reflective of the violence and avariciousness characterizing the conquest and exploitation of the region since Cecil Rhodes’ time, and probably long before.
Tens of thousands of media accounts, attracting more than 74.8 million comments, have already discussed Cecil’s death.
Forty days-plus after Cecil’s head was hacked from his body, the case continues to make global headlines.
Because Cecil’s death was already receiving saturation coverage, ANIMALS 24-7 waited for the dust to settle somewhat before exploring what it may mean––for African wildlife, for the struggling nation of Zimbabwe, for hunting practices and other hunted species, and for animal advocacy fundraising and strategy.
This report is the first of a three-part series seeking to put into perspective what happened to Cecil, the little reported back story behind the hue-and-cry, and what may happen as result of the international furor.
Part I: How the world found out
Ironically, in view of the media spotlight on the Cecil killing later, the first word of it to percolate to the outside world was just a three-line mention buried deep in a Zimbabwean Conservation Task Force electronic newsletter, beneath a report about the export of baby elephants from Zimbabwe to China:
10th July 2015
LION KILLED IN HWANGE
A beautiful famous lion in Hwange National Park has been shot. His name was Cecil and everybody wanted photos of him. A big game hunter shot him last week. He could have earned a lot of money by being alive and having photos taken.
The initial information was soon updated:
With regard to the report we have just sent out, the date Cecil was shot should be 6th July 2015.
Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force founder and executive director Johnny Rodrigues, holder of a Portuguese diplomatic passport, stepped forward early during the “land invasions” encouraged by the Robert Mugabe government since circa 2000 to report intensively and often by e-mail about the impact of the ensuing chaos on wildlife.
Among the properties most often invaded and plundered by Mugabe supporters were privately owned conservancies catering to trophy hunters and ecotourists. National parks and wildlife reserves were also often targeted, especially by Mugabe regime insiders.
With opposition media silenced, outside media mostly withdrawing from Zimbabwe to protect their personnel, and independent journalists soon following, there might have been no one left to tell the story.
But Rodrigues brought to the crisis a nationwide network of friends and acquaintances to help him gather information, including Zimbabwean government insiders who shared––and still share––his concern for the animals. Rodrigues also enjoyed a global network of contacts to help distribute his findings. And his diplomatic passport gave him some protection against persecution, albeit that he has been shot at a few times and has received more threats than he can count.
Rocking the Zimbabwean Noah’s Ark
Rodrigues knew he was once again rocking the Zimbabwean political Noah’s Ark by extensively reporting, for almost a year, about the capture and sale of the baby elephants. Captured in Hwange National Park in August 2014, the elephants were flown to China on July 4, 2015.
Throughout that time Rodrigues hoped his exposés about the baby elephants, many of them amplified by ANIMALS 24-7, would pique the interest of international mass media. Even a fraction of the outrage arising from the Cecil case might have pressured the Mugabe government to cancel the export permit.
That did not happen. Rodrigues appears to have had no idea, meanwhile, that the Cecil story would take off as it did.
16 days later in London
International news coverage of the Cecil case began 16 days after Rodrigues’ first report.
“Zimbabwean authorities hunt Spaniard accused of killing Cecil the lion,” bannered The Guardian, of London.
“Police are seeking the lion’s remains among the country’s taxidermists,” reported Guardian correspondent Stephen Burgen, from Barcelona. “The Spanish conservation organization Chelui4lions has written to Cites de España, the body that oversees the import of endangered species, asking it to prevent the importing of Cecil’s head as a trophy.
“From 2007 to 2012 Spain was the country that imported the most lion trophies from South Africa,” Chelui4lions spokesperson Luis Muñoz told Burgen. “During this period it imported 450 heads, compared to 100 in Germany. Europe needs to ban these lion hunting trophies altogether.”
Walter James Palmer
Rodrigues had earlier identified the hunter as a Spaniard, but updated his information on July 28, 2015, publishing the first accurate identification of Walter James Palmer by name and nationality, with his passport number and home address––which others, including some marginally involved celebrities, were later erroneously charged with releasing.
Palmer had been in trouble for illegal and unethical trophy hunting before, having pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he killed in western Wisconsin.
According to Rodrigues’ updated account, “On or about the 6th July 2013, Walter James Palmer was taken to Hwange National Park by professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst. They went hunting at night with a spotlight and spotted Cecil. They tied a dead animal to their vehicle to lure Cecil out of the park and they scented an area about half a kilometer from the park. Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn’t kill him. They tracked him down and found him 40 hours later when they shot him with a gun. They found that he was fitted with a GPS collar because he was being studied by the Hwange Lion Research, funded by Oxford University, so they tried to destroy the collar, but failed because it was found.
“We assume Theo Bronkhorst received this money”
“Cecil was skinned and beheaded,” Rodrigues continued. “We don’t know the whereabouts of the head. Walter Palmer apparently paid $50 000 U.S. for the kill. We assume Theo Bronkhorst received this money.
“Cecil, who was known all over the world, would have earned millions of dollars just from sightseeing,” Rodrigues observed. “There was apparently no quota or license for a lion to be killed in this area.
“The saddest part of all is that now that Cecil is dead, the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs so that he can insert his own bloodline into the females. This is standard procedure for lions.
“This has been going on too long,” Rodrigues finished. “Cecil is the 23rd or 24th lion who has been collared and then killed in Hwange. We have to try and stop it.”
Few of the many media accounts published afterward added any new substance to Rodrigues’ version, but that of Associated Press reporter Gerald Imray was an exception.
“When Cecil the lion’s carcass was finally found, it was a headless, skinless skeleton the vultures had been picking at for about a week,” wrote Imray. “Conservationists decided the most natural thing was to leave the bones where they were for hyenas to finish off, said Brent Stapelkamp, a lion researcher and part of a team that had tracked and studied Cecil for nine years.
“Stapelkamp darted Cecil and put his last GPS collar on in October,” Imray wrote. “Stapelkamp was probably the last person to get up close before Palmer used a bow and a gun to kill the now-famous lion. Stapelkamp alerted authorities that something might be wrong after Cecil’s GPS collar stopped sending a signal.
“A celebrity in Hwange”
“Cecil had an intriguing story,” Imray continued, “making him a celebrity in Hwange. He arrived as a kind of lion refugee, alone and wandering after being displaced from another territory. Cecil befriended another male lion, Jericho. Together they grew and watched over two prides, one with three lionesses and seven cubs and another with three lionesses.
“The satellite collar on Jericho has been sending normal signals, indicating the lion is alive and moving around,” Stapelkamp told Imray. “But Cecil’s killing will have an impact on the area. Jericho may not be able to hold their territory alone and could be chased away by rival lions. Unprotected, the lionesses and cubs would then be under threat and also move away or be killed.”
Observed Imray, “Safari operators who invested millions of dollars in the area would lose one of their biggest attractions for tourists.”
Confirmed Stapelkamp, “They’re burning fire breaks. They’re grading roads. They’re pumping water. They’re spending a lot of money in the management of lions.”
“An iconic lion was shot and killed”
Agreed Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, “An iconic lion was shot and killed. This is a real loss to our tourism industry and it has caused a lot of anxiety. Cecil was collared, indicating that he was selected for research purposes. He was popular with visitors to Hwange National Park who were fascinated by his black mane and always wanted to know his whereabouts.”
Responded Palmer, after Rodrigues identified him and the international furor started, “I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study, until the end of the hunt. I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
That detonated Humane Society of the United States president Wayne Pacelle.
“Cecil the lion is dead,” blogged Pacelle, “because Walter Palmer the dentist is a morally deadened human being. The man traveled clear across the world––from the suburbs of Minneapolis into the pay-to-slay world of Zimbabwe, where dictator Robert Mugabe sells off hunting rights and other natural resources to the highest bidders––for the chance to kill the king of beasts. In this case, the victim was a lion who has been widely photographed and somewhat habituated to a non-threatening human presence in Hwange National Park. The hunt was a ‘guaranteed kill’ arrangement, where Palmer paid professional guides to help him complete the task. The local guides knew exactly what they were doing.
“Even though Palmer has used his weapon to kill countless other rare animals all over the globe – from leopards to black bears to Argali sheep – Palmer didn’t deliver a killing shot,” Pacelle reminded. “He wounded the animal, and because he did it at night, I bet he didn’t have the courage to track the animal at that time. So he waited, while the lion tried to live minute to minute and hour to hour after receiving the stab wound from the arrow. It took them nearly two days to find him, and then they apparently shot him with a firearm. The team took the customary pictures of the westerner guy standing atop a beautiful, muscled animal, and then they decapitated and skinned him, as keepsakes for Palmer’s global crossing in order to conduct a pointless killing.”
U.S. is largest importer of lion trophies
“The United States is the world’s largest importer of African lion parts as hunting trophies and for commercial purposes,” Pacelle added. “Between 1999 and 2013, the United States imported about 5,763 wild-source lions just for hunting trophy purposes; this averages to 432 wild-source lions per year. Worse, this number has increased in recent years. That’s a lot of Walter Palmers doing ugly things.
“The Oxford University study Cecil was part of was looking into the impact of sports hunting on lions living in the safari area surrounding the national park,” Pacelle finished. “The research found that 34 of 62 tagged lions died during the study period. Of these, 24 were shot by sport hunters.”