Who Killed Cecil the Lion?

Can we really throw stones at the dentist who killed Cecil, Zimbabwe’s iconic lion? Until the late Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago, lions were the most widespread large land mammals, after humans, ranging from AlaskaLion_waiting_in_Namibia to Peru, and throughout Asia and Africa.* Think about it! Lions roamed where we once lived! So did mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, ten feet tall terror birds, rhinos, bison, hippos, camels, beardogs and glyptodonts, resembling giant armadillos. Where did they all go?

At one time, North America was home to more mega fauna than Africa. What happened to them? Granted, some, like the horse which originated here, migrated across the Bering Straits, and a newly formed isthmus to South America. Ice ages (there were at least five) had an effect. Parasites could easily decimate a whole herd. On school tours at the museum, I ask the children which do you think had the greatest impact? chill, kill, or ill? Invariably, they choose kill. Why? Do they know their own species so well?

Maybe. Remember the stories of 19th century train passengers shooting bison from the windows for sport? Those who couldn’t experience the west lived vicariously through “wild west shows,” like “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s, he who reportedly slaughtered more than 4,000 bison in two years.

We are not the only species that kills for reasons other than food. Cecil’s rival, another adult male, has killed Cecil’s cubs, which will assure less competition for his own progeny, a strategy not unknown among humans. Humans are adaptable. We’re resourceful. That’s why we remain at the top of the food chain. But killing for the thrill of the kill is less than human. The pride probably ate the murdered cubs. Humans are one step above cannibalism, but my friend Kaye would say we carnivores are not.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, lion populations in Africa are in serious decline, mostly from human intervention. Lions have suffered a population reduction of approximately 30% over the past two decades (approximately three lion generations). Whether a species is endangered or not, what does it say about us as a species to have trophies of animal heads on the wall? Think about it! 

*C.R. Dick Harrington, Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, vol. 6

Picture credit: Kevin Pluck at Okonjima AfriCat Foundation, Namibia

7 responses to “Who Killed Cecil the Lion?

  1. To answer your question, I think that we should not throw stones at the dentist. He has a gun, and is apparently a good shot.

    • He shot Cecil with a crossbow, but yes, a good shot. However, he had to put the beast out of his misery forty minutes later.

  2. Christopher Brooks

    The psychology here is interesting. People will make much of a single killing when the road to extinction has been in the process of being paved for decades. Where were they during the paving process? The vast majority of extinctions, or near extinctions, are due to disease and destruction of habitat. It can get to a point where the numbers of a particular species drop off to such a degree that the death of one or two is significant. The poachers are just the coup de grat as the value of the remaining few skyrockets. To parapharse Joan Baez, don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, or, in this case, almost gone.

    • *“There are millions of different species of animals and plants on Earth, possibly as many as 40 million, but somewhere between 5 and 50 billion species have existed at one time or another – thus, only about one in a thousand species is still alive – a truly lousy record: 99.9% failure.”
      -David M. Raup, Sewell Avery Distinguished Service professor, University of Chicago,

  3. Christopher Brooks

    Beardogs? Sounds like a mutant hybrid.

  4. Beardogs, dogs and bears evolved from the same ancestor. As you know, only the latter two survived.

  5. A thought-provoking essay. I’m still chewing on the “chill, kill, or ill?” question. For me, the issue isn’t the single hunter who killed Cecil and who’s done it before, but rather the greedy, ego-fulfillment his behavior symbolizes, which is raping the planet.

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