Cecil the lion – looking back.


On July 1st 2015, Cecil the African lion (Panthera leo) was shot near Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, using a compound bow and arrow by American dentist Walter Palmer. The initial shooting only wounded him – he was finished off with a rifle forty hours later.  In the months since, there has been enormous uproar over the incident, with continued ire being directed at those involved. Palmer himself has thus far escaped prosecution, though his guide and the landowner are facing charges. Nearly two years on and public interest in the case has largely died down, but looking back it is interesting how the death of a single animal, however tragic, garnered more attention than the widespread killing of more endangered species and destruction of vast areas of habitat.


Cecil and his GPS collar (BBC 2015)

Cecil and his GPS collar (BBC 2015)

Cecil himself was famous worldwide and was also a research subject for a study by Oxford University – was wearing a conspicuous (at least, from the back and sides) GPS monitoring collar which Palmer allegedly didn’t see. These factors alone, however, cannot explain the scale of the outrage that Cecil’s death caused. The well-documented popularity and charisma of lions as a species can hardly be the the only consideration here – 39 lion trophy heads were exported from Zimbabwe in 2013 alone (Hart 2015) with barely a fraction of the attention. So why is Cecil’s case different?


For his part, Palmer has been largely unrepentant – he has apologized for killing Cecil, but only because he was a named lion and was part of a scientific study (Mutsaka 2015; Hart 2015) He has been on successful hunts before (none attracting a fraction of the current attention) and has refused to rule out further hunts (BBC News 2015). This continuing pro-hunt attitude has helped stir public wrath against him, and against hunting in general. Furthermore, he lured Cecil away from the park using bait tied to his truck (Hart 2015) which even most hunters condemn (Huntergreen 2015; Xu 2015) and he treated the remains in a manner deemed as extremely disrespectful: Cecil was decapitated and skinned post-mortem for his remains to be shipped back to the US as a trophy (though this was later thwarted) (Mhlanga 2015). That Cecil doubtlessly suffered much between the initial arrow hit and the final blow forty hours later adds further fuel to the backlash.


A major potential reason for the outcry over Cecil’s shooting was that he was named. As Taylor (2013) notes, a name can be considered to denote person-hood and this helps to give the animal character, value and ultimately rights in the eyes of humans. Indeed, Palmer himself commented that if he had known that the lion had a name he wouldn’t have killed him (Hart 2015).


As Budiansky (2010) notes, a modern and prevalent idea has western urbanized civilization view nature – and wild animals in particular – as innocent, free creatures which should be free of any and all intervention or disruption by humans (killing being the worst form of human interference). In the United States, there is a growing divide between pro and anti-hunt groups (Franklin 2012), and with public concern for conservation issues increasing (Gross 2015) it could be said that Cecil has become a symbol for concerns over the current ecological decline.


Compounding this view of innocence is that lions are a much personified species whose influence on western culture is exemplified by their anthropomorphised portrayal in children’s movies such as the Lion King and Madagascar. These happy, family/childhood linked memories being tainted by news of a lion’s killing and decapitation could well be a cause for much of the outcry – as Taylor (2013) and Franklin (2014) note, these cultural links can facilitate attachment in the public.


Another economic reason for the reaction to Cecil’s killing is media outlets and anti-hunt groups capitalizing on Cecil’s death. Countless articles, both online and paper based, have been written on the topic which in turn presumably generated significant revenues for the news outlets. These articles have kept Cecil active in the public consciousness for nearly five months at time of writing. In short, keeping the debate stoked is in the interests of the very parties which help to influence public perception – the more angered individuals, the more readers/customers these businesses will have so it is arguably in their interests to stoke controversy.


Media outlets have also done much to anthropomorphize Cecil. In 18 articles studied by the author (the list of articles studied for this purpose can be found in Appendix 1.), all of them portrayed him with human characteristics, for example fatherliness, friendliness, gentleness (which seems contradictory, since he was both an obligate carnivore and an alpha lion) and innocence. His wild nature has largely been erased, save for the generation of outrage at human intrusion into a wild habitat.


The anthropomorphic language used by many to describe Cecil is reminiscent of the classic mythical father figure – strong, but warm and likable with none of the perceived negative characteristics that alpha male lions have (though one article mentioned how his cubs could be killed by an incoming male now that he is gone, no article mentioned that he likely did the same to his predecessors offspring) (Czaplewski, Ryan & Vaughan 2003). Further, Cecil was noted for being friendly towards visitors (BBC News 2015) which both further personified him and also made him a resource under human control – in essence Palmer was seen as having killed an innocent and a friend, but also having destroyed human property.


Cecil "tribute portrait" (Blaise 2015).

Cecil “tribute portrait” (Blaise 2015).

This portrayal of innocence is further exemplified by the consistent use of certain terms to describe Cecil’s death and incite passionate emotion in the readership. For example, many sources such as Hart (2015) and Mutori (2015) state that Cecil was “lured” from his national park home. Other words such as “killing” “murdered” and “shot” underline the violence of his death – in the rare pro-hunting articles other terms mentioned by Taylor (2013) as softening the blow or which objectify (and thus, devalue/depersonify) the animal like “taken” or “harvested” were used.


Asides from ascribing Cecil a distinct personality, the media has also utilized a well-known conservation effect. Lions are considered charismatic megafauna – large popular animals which humans are more likely to donate money to protect than smaller, less conspicuous species (Budiansky 2012). Several articles, such as BBC News (2015) reports, make note of Cecil’s well above average size (which also helps to portray him as a protector of his family) and other identifiable features such as an unusually dark mane. Coincidentally, these features are considered more prestigious and command a higher price to hunt (Blood Lions 2015) – the same features which made him so charismatic made him a bigger target.


All images of him seen in such articles are overwhelmingly positive – none portray him hunting, eating prey, fighting or in any situation that could cast him in a negative light. Even though such behaviours are perfectly natural for a lion they could change the perception of a notoriously irrational public from outraged (and thus, reading/purchasing) to apathetic or even disgusted (and thus not purchasing).


In contemporary Britain, and to a lesser extent other countries, hunting for leisure is widely condemned and relatively unpopular (Buczacki 2009) (though it still has strong support in some countries, such as the USA and other countries which benefit from hunting revenues including Zimbabwe) (Taylor 2013; Franklin 2012). Hunting of mammals in particular is seen by many Britons as barbaric and unnecessary (Buczacki 2005; Taylor 2013), which is in sharp contrast to the more dominionistic and utilitarian attitudes of the United States and Zimbabwe towards wildlife. The British and American responses were similar in many respects, although the author believes (from article analysis) that the British response reflects the greater anti-hunt sentiment noted by Taylor (2013).


In Zimbabwe, Cecil’s home and the location of the killing, the reaction has been mixed (Magaisa 2015; Mutori 2015). Cecil was an important income stream whose death has practical implications for local people dependant on tourist spending (Hart 2015; Mutori 2015). He’s also become a symbol of a perceived suppression of local interests by richer nations. The aftermath of the colonial era is still being felt in Zimbabwe, with the country’s political and economic status in dire straits (BBC 2015) – Cecil’s death could be seen as a focal point for understandable resentment towards wealthier, exploitative countries. Even within said wealthy countries guilt and disgust over previous imperialistic activities may, in the author’s opinion, have heightened backlash against Palmer – Cecil’s killing became a symbol for the parts of western society, history and culture which are now considered evil.


In news articles published in Zimbabwe, comments were frequently anti-american and a Zimbabwean official called for Palmer’s extradition – she stated that “Palmer, being an American citizen, had a well-orchestrated agenda which would tarnish the image of Zimbabwe and further strain the relationship between Zimbabwe and the USA” (Muchiguri 2015). The amount paid to hunt Cecil (mentioned in virtually every article the author found) doubtless feeds resentment in local people, and reinforces the global perception of Palmer – a wealthy westerner plundering an impoverished country for leisure. This issue is compounded by Palmer evading prosecution even as the local guide and the landowner of the killing site face stiff punishment.


In spite of this outrage, Zimbabwe apparently has a largely dominionistic view of lions and other wildlife; exemplified by the very business of selling paid hunts of large animals (Palmer apparently paid approximately £32,000 to hunt and kill Cecil, and legal hunting is a substantial revenue stream for the country) including a species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN (Bauer et al 2015). In a country where food and resources are scarce and poaching rampant (BBC 2015), and lions even pose a threat to human safety (Mhlanga 2015) it’s hardly surprising that  “While the conservationists were mourning the death of Cecil, most Zimbabwean communities were left wondering what the fuss was all about” (Mutori 2015).


Interestingly, some in Zimbabwe actually welcomed Cecil’s death. Cecil was accused of killing local livestock, and was thus seen as transgressive animal. In fact, one local politician is reported to have said “good riddance” (Taferenyika 2015) on hearing of Cecil’s passing – the act of taking human-owned livestock made Cecil an enemy in some people’s minds.


In conclusion, the enormous reaction to Cecil’s death from all sides can be seen as the embodiment of several cultural, social and economic factors which go far beyond a simple disgust at killing for pleasure. In the author’s opinion, the issue will likely remain prominent for the foreseeable future and is unlikely to reach a satisfactory resolution for either pro-hunt or anti-hunt factions from this one incident –  the factors are too complex for one incident to bring about any major change to the hunting business. As Travers (2015) notes, awareness of the hunting issue has been greatly increased, so perhaps reasoned debate may now commence.

Reference List

Albert, J. (2015) Among the Cecil the lion protestors. Available from: http://www.outdoornews.com/July-2015/Among-the-Cecil-the-lion-protesters/. [Accessed 26/11/2015].

Budiansky, S. (2011) Nature’s Keepers. Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Buczacki, S. (2011) Fauna Brittanica. Hamlyn Publishing.

Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, PF, Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. (2015) [online] Panthera leo. Available from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/15951/0. [Accessed 04/11/2015].

BBC (no author given) (2015) In pictures: Zimbabwe’s Cecil the lion. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-33740776. [Accessed 10/11/2015]

BBC (no author given) (2015) Zimbabwe “seeks lion Cecil’s killer”. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-33733722. [Accessed 10/11/2015]

BBC News (no author given) (2015) Cecil the Lion: No charges for Walter Palmer says Zimbabwe. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-34508269

BBC (no author given) (2015) In pictures: Zimbabwe’s Cecil the lion. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-33740776. [Accessed 10/11/2015]

Blaise, A. (2015) Cecil the lion tribute created by Lion King animator. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/aug/05/cecil-the-lion-tribute-created-by-lion-king-animator. [Accessed 19/11/2015].

BBC (no author given) (2015) Zimbabwe country profile. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14113249. [Accessed 26/11/2015].

Discovery HD (2015) Blood Lions (TV) Blood Lions campaign,

Dresislin, R. (2015) Cecil the lion, Walter Palmer, and emotions gone wild. Available from: http://www.outdoornews.com/July-2015/Cecil-the-lion-Walter-Palmer-and-emotions-gone-wild/. [Accessed 25/11/2015].

Gross, M. (2015) Can we change our predatory ways? Current Biology. 25(20):965-967

Hart, A. (2015) Viewpoint: Uncomfortable realities of big game hunting. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34116488. [Accessed 24/11/2015].

Herzog (2014) Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. Harper Perennial.

Huntergreen.org (no author given) (2015) The Hunter’s perspective on Cecil the lion’s death. Available from: http://huntergreen.org/conservation/the-hunters-perspective-on-the-killing-of-cecil/.

Franklin, A. (2014) Animals & modern cultures. Sage Publications.

Magaisa, A. (2015) After Cecil the lion, it’s now to the elephants. Available from: http://www.herald.co.zw/after-cecil-the-lion-its-now-to-the-elephants/.

Mhlanga, C. (2015) Study of Cecil the Lion exposes human nature. Available from: http://www.dailynews.co.zw/articles/2015/08/24/study-of-cecil-the-lion-exposes-human-nature.

Mutori, D. (2015) [online] Zimbabwe needs new strategy to fight wildlife terrorism. New Zimbabwe. Available from: http://www.newzimbabwe.com/business-25913-Mutori+Fighting+Zim’s+wildlife+terrorism/business.aspx. [Accessed 08/11/2015]

Mutsaka, S. (2015) Lion’s killing in Zimbabwe sparks worldwide outrage. Available from: http://www.outdoornews.com/August-2015/Lions-killing-in-Zimbabwe-sparks-worldwide-outrage/. [Accessed 23/11/2015]

Nale, M. (2015) The sad fate of Cecil the lion: a small part of a bigger picture. Available from: http://www.outdoornews.com/August-2015/The-sad-fate-of-Cecil-the-lion-a-small-piece-of-a-bigger-picture/. [Accessed 24/11/2015].

Taferenyika, M. (2015) Palmer “not to blame for Cecil the lion’s death” . Available from: http://www.dailynews.co.zw/articles/2015/08/29/palmer-not-to-blame-for-cecil-the-lion-s-death. [Accessed 11/11/2015].

Taylor, N. (2013) Humans, Animals and Society. Lantern Books.

Travers, W. (2015) A major misfire. New Scientist. 227(3033):22-23

Xu, D. (2015) Was Cecil the lion poached? Minnesota dentist becomes target of outrage. Available from: http://www.outdoorhub.com/news/2015/07/29/cecil-lion-poached-minnesota-dentist-becomes-target-outrage/. [Accessed 26/11/2015].

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Avid wildlife and ecology enthusiast, graduated from a degree in Animal Science last year. About to embark on the Erasmus Mundus International Master's in Applied Ecology.

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