The death of Cecil: A turning point for wildlife?

Portrait, male lion at sunrise

A lion (not Cecil) in Botswana. The killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe has elevated issues surrounding wildlife to new heights. Through United for Wildlife, CI is partnering with other organizations to help combat the illegal poaching and trafficking of species. (© Rod Mast)

The response to the killing of Cecil the lion has surprised even the most ardent wildlife advocate. From the White House to the Zimbabwean government, from ordinary citizens to celebrities as diverse as Jimmy Kimmel and Newt Gingrich, virtually every media outlet in the world has covered the story. It has been the top trending topic on social media for several days running.

I don’t think anyone in conservation, including the scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University who have studied this particular lion, could have predicted this. Their website has shuddered under the attention and money has come pouring in — upwards of US$ 750,000 for their research efforts.

It’s easy to see how this killing drew so much outrage. First, it has been widely reported that the hunt was illegal with no permit issued by the authorities (though the guide contests this). Second, the lion had a name and was known to many who had visited Hwange National Park. Third, the protestations of innocence rang hollow given that the lion was wearing a collar and the hunter had been convicted for a wildlife crime previously. Many in the West saw something wrong about luring a lion out of a national park using bait tied to a vehicle and then shooting it under the glare of a spotlight — hardly fair chase.

Not every killing, legal or otherwise, gets this kind of attention.

Further reading

On average, one rhino, several lions and nearly 100 elephants are killed every day in Africa. Lions have lost 30% of their population in just two decades and now number as few as 20,000. Elephants have been hit worse still, with as many as 100,000 killed in just three years. And for rhinos the situation is truly critical: There are only 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, and each day brings reports of horrific poaching, sometimes using helicopters. The northern white rhino (a subspecies) is down to just four on the planet. And even the small, harmless ant-eating pangolin is poached on a massive scale, making it the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Portrait, Rhino

Due to illegal poaching, all species of rhino are threatened with extinction. (© Rod Mast)

These efforts are well organized and multinational, involving organized crime and terror networks, making illegal wildlife trafficking the fourth-most lucrative global crime, worth between $8 billion and $10 billion per year.

That’s why seven international conservation organizations including Conservation International have come together to work with the Duke of Cambridge and the Royal Foundation through an effort called United for Wildlife. The purpose: to bring coordinated action to educate, disrupt and reduce demand for iconic wildlife species on the brink of collapse, including the lion, rhino, elephant and pangolin.

A few days ago, I was asked to appear on MSNBC to speak about the death of Cecil. The key point I wanted to convey is that while bad hunting practices and poor enforcement of regulations are harmful to wildlife, the real challenge with conserving iconic species in Africa hinges on tackling large-scale poaching — efforts organized by cartels and terror networks. The scale is truly unprecedented, and if it continues, even legal hunting will be in danger.

There is also the long-term challenge that many people in Africa, especially those who have to bear the brunt of living alongside wildlife, do not get to benefit from either trophy hunting or ecotourism. This perceived lack of value for wildlife, especially dangerous wildlife, has led to apathy at best or hostility at worst. While we may believe that people need nature, for conservation to work we must be able to demonstrate this percept in the field.

The death of Cecil has turned the spotlight of the world on the state of lions and other iconic species in Africa. It would be a shame if all we managed to do was prosecute one dentist, while boatloads and planeloads of animal parts, hides, horns and tusks continued to fill the coffers of criminal gangs and local communities pay the price, without reaping the rewards, of living with wildlife.

M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI. Follow him on Twitter. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


  1. Ginger Dyer says

    The Baltimore Catechism says “God made the animals to know, love and serve Him”. I have cherished those words my entire life. The loss of Cecil has been so heart breaking. May his sweet soul rest in peace!!!!!!

    1. Carol Halbert says

      AMEN to that!!! It is something that will be L-O-N-G remembered and leaves a revolting taste in my mouth. Sooooooooooo sad and sooooooooooooooooo unnecessary!!!

    2. Garth Edwards says

      Unfortunately your god gave man dominion over all of the world, including its animals and that is where the problems began. Get rid of religion and we might be able to save the planet from over exploitation – man might begin to once again respect Mother Nature.

    3. richard says

      I began hunting at the age of twelve, i recall taking the safety course in Poland. I recently began hunting again several yrs ago and enjoy it. I do however feel that it should be done with respect to the environment, respect to the animals and respect to others. I also was raised to not hunt/kill anything unless it is for food. Please..anyone…educate me on the hunting for “sport” premise as i cannot help but feel it is utterly ridiculous and should be illegal. I say all of this due to the recent Cecil the Lion that was killed by some idiotic strip-mall dentist … what is the purpose of this endevor? you pay tens of thousands of dollars to be on a guided, safe, secure, touristy trip to shoot an endangered animal (that you dont eat by the way) from a distance so far you need a scope to properly see it and then you get a photo of you holding its lifeless head up … I just dont get this depravity. so, you then hang its head on your wall so you can then proudly puff out your 32 inch chest telling others about the lack of danger, the lack of challenge the lack of rationale but certainly not the lack of cost it all took to bag this big beast. Wow, arent you special.

  2. NICK COSTA says

    R.I.P. Cecil but you were never be forgotten for what you stood for: your courage, strength, uniqueness, fatherly, loveable and such a great looking lion with a wonderful personality.
    Don’t worry Cecil Walter has blood on his hands and justice will be served.
    My heart breaks for you and your family.
    May GOD Bless you and the rest of the pack.



  3. Paul says

    Are you serious? First, let me say the hunt was illegal and it was wrong, but why does nobody seem to care about all the human babies being murdered every day by abortion and their organs being sold like parts from a pick and pull junkyard? These babies have a heartbeat and can feel pain. It is a thousand times worse than this Cecil Phenomenon.

    People, you need to get your priorities straight.

    1. John Burridge says

      Paul, it’s you who needs to get things straight. 20,000 lions left on the planet because of the actions of the most destructive predatory ape of all time, of whom there are 7 BILLION, most of whom are wrecking everything in sight.

    2. Anna says

      Hi, remember it does not make an injustice ok just because as bad happens to other beings too. And how do u know a human feels more pain or is really more important than an animal? And people can care about all beings, don’t act like it’s either Cecil OR humans and that it’s true that people have to choose between caring for one or the other!!!

    3. anna says

      *facepalm* “On average, one rhino, several lions and nearly 100 elephants are killed every day in Africa. Lions have lost 30% of their population in just two decades and now number as few as 20,000. Elephants have been hit worse still, with as many as 100,000 killed in just three years. And for rhinos the situation is truly critical: There are only 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild, and each day brings reports of horrific poaching.” HUMANS: 7.5 billion and growing exponentially. You were saying about priorities? Sick to death of you MORONS hijacking these articles – go and bleat about abortion on appropriate websites re PP or whatever. If YOU think that the whole “PP phenomenon” is “1000 times worse than Cecil” then it’s only YOUR opinion (& others like you). Let the rest us of us get on with the business of trying to stop humans from completely destroying this planet and its other rightful inhabitants. You might want to consider that we REAAAALLY don’t need any more humans on this planet, but of course that thought never seriously enters your tiny mind does it? Why don’t you educate yourself and get YOUR priorities straight for a change. It’s not going to be much of a world for the next generations is it? All life is interdependent and can’t exist in a vacuum. So I suggest you start paying attention if you want any kind of future for humanity.

        1. Kunal Kant Jain says

          Right Ann. I think human population is not the priority right now. The numbers are enough right now to take care of themselves. But sorry we cant say the same about animals. I don’t understand even in the year of 2015 we are not being able to save these animals??? Other than spreading awareness what should we be doing?? These African countries just to earn money are selling their animals like auction.

    4. Linda Bennett says

      Blame the parents – I’m really tired of zealots like you trying to force your personal beliefs on everybody else and trying to make us feel guilty because some stranger didn’t use birth control.
      And if you are such a “pro-lifer” and against killing as you state, why do you dismiss the torture and killing of an endangered species as not worthy of attention and concern?
      You obviously don’t care as much about “life” as you say you do – apparently you’re only concerned with certain forms of life that you arrogantly define as worthy and feel you are superior to everybody and everything else in this world.

    5. Janet says

      Paul – you need to get your priorities straight. Stop believing everything you hear from organizations that are out to get Planned Parenthood by making up false portrayals. You don’t believe in abortion then don’t have one. Prove that a mass of tissue can feel pain as the nerves have not been developed yet. Using fetal tissue for research is a noble use of the tissue. Mind your own business and let women make their own decisions without interference from people like you. As for Cecil, it was a terrible what happened to him at the hands of the disgusting hunter and if we don’t do something, all African wildlife will be poached and hunted into extinction.

    6. W L Kohler says

      Paul there are MANY of us that DO care just as much about the continued wanton murder of millions of innocent human babies every year. However there are very many of billions of humans to preserve our race but these wonderful God created creatures are being wantonly driven to extinction. Babies are each one important but the urgency for the few thousands or hundreds of animals being driven from this life is greater if not more important. Both MUST be stopped!

    7. S McMi says

      Get your priorities straight!!!! This story is about the wild “animals” that are being hunted down & extinction & not about human babies!!! There are other web sites you can vent on!!! Get off this one!!!!

    8. Jon says

      This is completely irrelevant to the post. Some people need to have abortions because they cant have children at that time in life. If you were 18 in your first year of college playing 2 sports on scholarship and your girlfriend got pregnant what would you do? Again your comment is completely irrelevant to the post about this lion.

  4. deborah rucker says

    Cecil had reached Nirvana the divine ground of existence:of blissful. What the pride goes through after is horrifying and now his pride is in hiding fearing for their lives. and such goes on and on. I hope all trophy hunters afterlife is like hunger games that every animal they have slaughtered is after them and they have no weapons. Roar Cecil.

  5. Judie Carlson says

    As tragic and heartbreaking as the death of Cecil has been, I think his death was not without purpose. The increased recognition that this was a living, breathing, animal who loved living and watching his children and caring for his pride has really resonated with more people than many articles, rallies and pledges – even pictures of this beautiful animal – could have done. One can only hope that people who were not previously concerned about wildlife will be more aware and maybe help with the problem. We are losing hundreds of wild animals every DAY! It must stop. Thank you for your contribution Cecil.

  6. Molly Bergen says

    While Human Nature encourages discussion and debate, please keep your comments relevant to the subject of the blogs and avoid personal attacks on individuals.

  7. Sandra Larsen says

    Paul, first, people are capable of caring deeply about more than one issue at a time. Second, there are other more appropriate forums for you to discuss your particular cause. Third, my priorities are straight, even if they don’t agree with yours. And yes, I am serious.

  8. Edmund Gutierrez says

    Trymp noise?
    What happened to all of trunp’s family killing exotic animala for game!
    Look into that for tha trunp noise ia a cover up.
    Criminal actions must be taken since exotic game is promoted by trump inc.

  9. Dawn Goodman says

    The poachers, Dr. Palmer and any other trophy hunter who emulates Dr. Palmer’s illegal in the future should be prosecuted. To send a message to those who will not stop killing the endangered wild life until they all are extinct.

  10. Art Palmer says

    The dodo dentist should be brought up on charges of cruelty to an animal because he elected to use a cross bow which, coupled with his poor marksmanship, gave Cecil a lingering death for some 48 hours!

  11. Kunal Kant Jain says

    Guys I am a Vegan and to me every animal whether farm raised or belongs to the jungle feels pain. I try to pursue everyone to become a vegan and save lives.Humans are the only beings on earth who have the option to convert into a vegetarian by choice. Moreover i believe it is us humans who are directly or indirectly responsible for what is happening to the environment and other species. Therefore I would request everyone to slowly turn into a vegan and try to follow a reduce/reuse/recycle strategy in life for whatever we use. When our demand for products will reduce the factories producing such products will automatically reduce their raw material consumption which in turn will automatically reduce deforestation for mining for raw materials and setting up new factories.

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