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PHOTOGRAPH BY VILLIERS STEYN/GETTY

How Cecil The Lion Changed Global Policy, Months Later

The final verdict on why the viral media story impacted conservation efforts.

September 28, 2015

By now, we all know the story. In late July, 55-year-old Dr. Walter J. Palmer, a Minnesota dentist and recreational big-game hunter, was on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe. Despite the fact that the expedition was licensed—reportedly, Palmer paid $50,000 for the privilege—things went terribly awry when he lured a 13-year-old Southwest African lion away from protected land within the Hwange National Park, wounded him with a crossbow, and then tracked him for 40-plus hours before killing the big cat with a rifle. 

The lion, Cecil—named for Cecil Rhodes, the namesake of Oxford University’s prestigious Rhodes scholarship—was reportedly the best-known animal in the game reserve because of his distinctive black mane. Cecil was also part of an Oxford University study on lion conservation in Zimbabwe (hence the name). 

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With the constant threat of human hunters, Cecil might not have lived as long in the wild as he did in the park, and his death might have gone all but unnoticed if he weren’t a minor celebrity already. But because of the way Palmer killed Cecil, an animal that was supposed to be protected in the national reserve, the outrage spread swiftly. Cecil the Lion trended on social media for weeks. Critics called for Palmer to face legal charges and even be extradited to Zimbabwe. Palmer insists his guides had the proper permits and has not faced any legal consequences or fines as a result of killing Cecil.

In typical Internet outrage fashion, Palmer’s professional practice’s Yelp page was inundated with negative reviews. Amid protests and death threats, Palmer’s dentistry practice was shuttered, and his family went into hiding. (Palmer finally returned to work late this month.)

In the time since the frenzy surrounding Cecil’s death, swift, noticeable impact on policy has been made. In July, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, and many other international airlines banned the transport of animal trophies. By August, Delta, United, American, and Virgin Airlines all joined the list of carriers that would no longer allow passengers to ship trophies of the Big 5 (lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceroses, and buffaloes). Several states also issued orders to ban the future import of big game trophies. What could be viewed as reactive corporate policy, bending to the will of angry petitioners, could actually have a positive long-term impact on curbing illegal big-game hunting. 

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And of course, people put their money where their mouths were. Following the weeks of stories about Cecil and the wide-ranging debates about the differences between sanctioned game hunting and poaching, some wildlife and conservation organizations reported a helpful uptick in donations. The Oxford University wildlife conservation team that studied Cecil saw more than half a million dollars pour in to fund big cat research, which may enable the team to expand its research even beyond Zimbabwe. Panthera, a global wild cat conservation group affiliated with the Oxford research unit, also received a bump in donations. Its president told National Geographic that the money will go toward projects such as building livestock corrals to keep farmed animals safe from big cats, thus cutting back on retaliatory lion killings by people who lose livestock. 

Even smaller U.S.-based organizations felt the impact. John Petersen is chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the use of technology to preserve the environment. His team runs a drone and data analytics program called Air Shepherd to end illegal elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. Petersen noticed such a sudden spike—several thousand dollars—that he asked his team if there had been a recent publicity push. (It was, of course, just a byproduct of the outrage over Cecil.) And on August 10, on the heels of Cecil’s death, activists convened at the second annual World Lion Day in Boston, with much more fanfare and higher attendance than its inaugural year. The day is meant to raise awareness about dwindling lion populations worldwide and to highlight how humans and lions can coexist. 

Currently, about 15,000 Americans visit Africa for hunting safaris every year, the highest number after Africans (and an ironically high number considering the outpouring of outrage from Americans following Cecil’s death, presumably at least a few of whom have been on hunting safaris themselves). Eleven African countries issue permits to hunt lions, so Zimbabwe is only place hunters seeking a mane like Cecil’s might go to legally hunt lions. According to the nonprofit Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, 49 lion trophies were exported in 2013, and approximately 665 so-called trophy lions are killed in Africa each year. Big-game hunting isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, nor is it always seen as negative, and some conservationists even suggest that approving a limited amount of legal hunting may actually help conserve animal habitats and populations on a wider scale.

The overall damage to lion populations, however, is cause for concern. According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, African lion populations have decreased by more than 50 percent, largely due to trophy and commercial hunting, as well as habitat loss and disease—and that’s even with big game parks doing their part to protect the animals. A startling 75 percent of African lions’ natural range has been lost, giving the great cats fewer areas where they can live without interfering with humans and vice versa. Despite this considerable decline, lions are the only big cat not protected by the Endangered Species Act. 

Still, not everyone understood the specific uproar over Cecil. Writing in the New York Times, Zimbabwe-born doctoral student Goodwell Nzou noted that he was baffled by the misplaced outrage. “In my village, surrounded by wildlife conservation areas, no lion has ever been beloved or granted an affectionate nickname,” he wrote, explaining that lions outside of protected preserves cause great terror and suffering when they attack humans. In neighboring Botswana, since a hunting ban took effect two years ago, villages have had to deal with a swell in wild animal attacks. But they’ve also encountered another problem: a drastic decrease in income from safari hunting that’s gone to other nearby nations. Zambia recently lifted a ban on leopard hunting, and lions are expected to be delisted and back in the crosshairs again by next year.

It’s a complicated issue, with arguments for animal population control and human cohabitation on one side juxtaposed with wildlife conservation, the humane treatment of animals, and legal action against poaching on the other. Change in corporate policy, plus increased awareness and funding directed at big cat research and wildlife conservation, may be a net positive result of the aftermath. And after weeks of what seemed, at times, like an overblown story, Cecil’s untimely death also gave people an opportunity to educate themselves about the issues and become involved with wildlife protection and policies that impact threatened species around the world.

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