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The Sad Saga of Cecil the Lion

There can be very few hunters around the world who have not heard about ‘Cecil the Lion,’ a collared animal from Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, that was shot and wounded outside the park by an American bowhunter, and subsequently tracked and killed on 1 July 2015.
A number of other newsworthy events around Lions happened concurrently or subsequent to this event, resulting in a frenzy of social media activity which was amplified by the mainstream print, radio and television media.

All this unwelcome negative publicity was not at all good for the authentic hunting community where high standards of ethical behaviour are upheld. The ongoing practice of ((canned lion hunting”, while it is not illegal in South Africa, continues to drive a large amount of public condemnation that keeps adding more fuel to the general anti-hunting sentiment which spreads around the world like wildfire, thanks to the Internet and social media. There is now a detailed reference in Wikipedia on the subject of Cecil the Lion.

This story had received worldwide coverage in the period just before the launch of a film called Blood Lions, a documentary about canned lion hunting in South Africa. The film’s sponsors could not have wished for better publicity for their movie, which was released at the Durban International Film Festival on 22 July.

“The film follows long-time wildlife campaigner Ian Michler on his quest to uncover the truth behind these breeding facilities and the canned hunting industry. Opponents to predator breeding and canned hunting have been calling for an end to these practices for almost 20 years, but with little lasting success, as both practices continue to grow.

“The Blood Lions team believes the film will provide the campaign with a significant boost,” says Michler. “Powerful footage and a compelling narrative from a number of world-renowned conservationists and welfare experts will leave viewers in little doubt as to what is taking place on many private farms across South Africa. Other than greed and ego, there are no reasons to be breeding lions in captivity to be killed in captivity. We believe the film can be a global tool for meaningful change.”

Michler is a tireless anti-hunting campaigner, and the canned lion industry provides a convenient scapegoat for the hunting fraternity in general. The film has been touring the world, and has its own website at So another anti-hunting body comes into existence, gathering more opposition to hunting — and not only canned lion hunting. The website reports as follows (6 September 2015) on the success of the campaign in Australia:

Tomorrow is the last public screening in Australia. We have had a great response in both cities including a standing ovation in Sydney. Ian Michler had this to say: “A huge thanks to Sydney for the great support they gave Blood Lions. A special evening for me with family and great friends in the audience. Special thanks to Matt Collis from IFAW, Hon Mark Pearson MLC, Animal Justice Party and Jerone Van Kernebeek from Four-Paws for the support and their contributions to the panel discussion. It’s Melbourne next and I am looking forward to meeting all the film’s supporters there, including Bruce Poon, Convenor of the Animal Justice Party and Nichola Donovan, President of Lawyers for Animals. Thanks to the UMAPS Student Club and Human Rights and Animal Ethics Network of Melbourne University for hosting us. For those that have not booked tickets, please come and support Blood Lions. While lions are the main characters in the film, we are also dealing with global issues about humanity and our approach to the planet.”

 Among the many thousands of comments about Cecil, a couple stood out for their objectivity, like the one from the Chair of the IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP)/Species Survival Commission (SSC) Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (see

Another valuable commentary may be found at

While the Internet storm over Cecil the lion is highly relevant to the wildlife policy in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere in Africa, it also has broader implications for conservation. These relate to the impact of social media. Conservation organisations are heavily committed to social media as a way of getting their message out and recruiting supporters. This means that what social media says about conservation strategies has real bite. Hunting-based conservation strategies are suddenly embarrassing.

Live by the sword, die by the sword: if conservation is prosecuted through social media, it will be forced to abide by the norms of those who dominate that community. Science is hard to explain, and evidence-based decisions may be hard to explain or to justify. Subtle arguments do not work very well in 140 characters. Those who are most connected get listened to first and most. Celebrity and connectivity determine influence.

Hence, the conservation of trolls: In the world of the Internet, it is the views of the connected that matter, meaning trolls as well as the many others who use social media to express their views in less extreme ways. And the case opens The Wildlife Game up conservation policy in Africa to a vast passing audience whose views are strongly held and fiercely expressed.

In the end, whose values should drive conservation strategies in countries like Zimbabwe? Those of local people in rural areas where lions hunt and are hunted? Those of national government officials, balancing an industry against their international responsibilities for conservation? Those of media managers in international conservation NG0s, desperate to fted the insatiable demands of Facebook updates and Twitter streams? Or those who only think about conservation when they tune to the shifting emotional storm fronts of social media?

The TRAFFIC organisation had been researching the trade in lion bones for some time, and at the height of the Cecil pandemonium a letter was published in a widely-read journal, titled “Traditional medicines: Tiger-bone trade could threaten lions” (Vivienne L. Williams, Nature 523, p 290, published online 15 July 2015). Shortly thereafter the full TRAFFIC report was published (see Williams, V.L., Newton, D.J., Loveridge, A.J. and Macdonald, D.W. (2015). Bones of Contention: An Assessment of the South African Trade in African Lion Panthera leo Bones and Other Body Parts. TRAFFIC, Cambridge, UK & WildCRU, Oxford, UK.) Since a clamp-down on the use of tiger bones for traditional Chinese remedies, lion bones are in demand as substitutes.

Ironically, and coincidentally, this TRAFFIC report features a full-page portrait of Cecil!

The fuller picture of the “lion industry” in South Africa has now been unraveled, and a sordid one it is, and one that does little for the proud conservation reputation of this country. There are an estimated 6 000 or more lions in captivity, mainly in the Free State and North West Provinces. Many of the lion-breeding farms host paying volunteers from overseas, who are duped into thinking they are helping to breed lions for “release into the wild”. Many cubs are placed in “lion-petting” facilities, where children can pet the cubs and have their photographs taken (for a fee). They are also fed the “breeding for release in the wild” line, when, in fact, the animals end up being shot by paying visitors. The bones are then cleaned and sold to China as a further revenue stream. It is a lucrative business, and it is mostly not illegal.

But it is not a business that does any good for the genuine hunting industry, and may end up damaging it severely. In the Internet era, the social media have powerful political influence, and perhaps thanks to Disney’s Lion King, lions share with elephants a special place in Western affections (Mufasa joining the Dumbo club). We can expect every incident involving any perceived downside of hunting to hit the headlines in future.