ON THE NIGHT OF 1 JULY 2015, Cecil, all alone, returned to an elephant-meat bait on a game ranch called Antoinette that was located just outside the boundary of Hwange National Park. He had fed on the same bait the night before. Antoinette was owned by a Zimbabwean citizen called Honest Ndhlovu.
There that night, awaiting Cecil’s return to the bait, was an experienced American bow hunter called Walter Palmer from Minnesota, USA. Palmer was accompanied by his Zimbabwean professional-hunter guide, Theo Bronkhorst. The two men were sitting quietly in a hide that had been constructed by Bronkhorst in the branches of a nearby tree.
Sometime between 9 and 11 pm, Cecil arrived on the bait and Palmer shot and wounded him with an arrow. He ran off into the darkness. The following morning, they tracked him down and found him some 250 meters distant from the bait. Palmer fired a second arrow into the animal, killing it immediately.
Antoinette Game Ranch has a common boundary with Hwange National Park. There was no game fence barrier between the two properties, however, just the twin steel tracks of the not-so-busy railway line between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls.
There are several versions explaining why Palmer was there to shoot this lion that night. Some of these were imaginary ideas made by people who have no idea what they were talking about. So, they were sheer flights of fancy which I shall, justifiably, ignore. The one I accept is the most feasible.
Palmer, a practicing dentist in Minnesota, had let it be known that he wanted to come to Zimbabwe to shoot a good quality big male lion with a bow and arrow. He had left instructions within the Zimbabwean hunting world, therefore, to be phoned the moment such a lion was available. When such a quality lion began appearing regularly on the Antoinette property, therefore, Bronkhorst had phoned him. Palmer had immediately cancelled all his dental appointments, promising his patients he would get back to them for new appointments just as soon as he got back from Africa. And he had taken the first available commercial flight to Zimbabwe.
This is not an unusual practice. When busy and successful business people, anywhere and everywhere from all over the world, want to hunt a special trophy, they often follow this same procedure. They take time off from their busy schedules, enough to conduct a successful hunt, and they return home just as soon as they have concluded their hunt.
During the period of Cecil’s hunt, Palmer’s dental practice was standing-idle back home. He was eager, therefore, to return to Minnesota after the hunt was over. So, immediately after he had killed Cecil, he confirmed his return flight, left Antoinette, returned to Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare and he immediately flew back home to America. There was no ulterior motive for him returning to America immediately after the hunt, however, with what seemed to be precipitous haste.
As is normal in the hunting industry, the professional hunter/outfitter (PH) takes care of the task of skinning the hunter’s trophies, gets the skinned trophies to a qualified taxidermist and it is the taxidermist who then takes over responsibility for preparing them for transport to the hunter’s home destination. The PH, however, completes all the export paper work that goes hand-in-hand with sending game trophies overseas. This all happened in the case of the shooting of Cecil the lion.
The most unsavoury taste to this hunt was the fact that Palmer had not killed the lion cleanly with his first shot. Nobody likes wounding an animal, any animal, but it happens. And hunters learn to take the rough with the smooth.
One of the horror statements made by Rodrigues was that Cecil’s decapitated body was found the day after his killing, discarded in the bush, on Antoinette Game Ranch. And the public was left with a feeling of disgust that a beautiful animal had been unnecessarily slaughtered and his remains had been terribly desecrated. Nowhere in the literature has anybody bothered to explain this incident in any further way. And the public have been left to believe whatever their imaginations have led them to pursue. That is an animal rightist propaganda strategy.
But there is no mystery to the story.
Palmer is alleged to have paid Bronkhorst US$ 45 000 for the privilege of shooting such a big lion. That fee covered all the expenses incurred by Bronkhorst in his prior preparations for the hunt and it included the preparation of the trophy after the event. Fee-paying hunters normally do not have the expertise to skin a trophy animal, which requires great skill. But that is one of the important tasks for which the professional hunter has been contracted to perform. Bronkhorst, as a licensed professional hunter, had been trained to prepare the trophy for the taxidermist. So when Palmer had departed back home to America, Bronkhorst began preparing the Cecil trophy.
Preparing a lion trophy takes hours and hours of great attention to detail. First, the animal has to be skinned (in a special way) and its paws are left intact on the skin. Once the skinning process reaches the animal’s head, the head is severed and the body is detached at the base of the skull. The lion’s decapitation happens with the main body skin still attached to the skull.
The body, for which nobody now has any use, is then discarded. In the case of Cecil’s body, it was laid out at a remote place on Antoinette Ranch as food for the national park’s vultures. And there is nothing wrong with doing that. The vultures, too, have to eat! I myself have done this same thing with all the stock-killing lions, and man-eating lions, that I have myself hunted and killed. So, this accounts for the fact that Cecil’s body, without the head, was found apparently abandoned the day after he had been hunted. The unsavoury taste that Rodrigues left in the public mind over this issue, therefore, was a blatant attempt to sour still more, the story he told of Cecil’s demise. It was an unnecessary and unfortunate extra bit of bitter-sweet rhetoric with which to dress-up his propaganda. And the ignorant public reacted appropriately.
Preparing the lion’s head for the taxidermist requires very, very careful skinning. First of all the ear-cartilage has to be severed from the head whilst still being attached to the main skin. The separation happens at or on the skull. The skin is then pulled forward over the skull and it is turned inside out.
Next the eyes have to be carefully treated using a very sharp scalpel. The inside skins of the eyelids, for example, are skinned right down to the eye-lashes. Care must be taken, nevertheless, not to lose even a single eye-lash hair. Once the eyes have been attended to, the skin is further turned inside out and pulled down over the nose and forward over the animal’s face. The inside flesh and the gristle on the nose is then carefully removed from the skin with huge concentration. The inside of the nose-skin has to be dressed clean without a single nick despoiling its outer surface. The skin can then be cut off the head and once it is removed, the gums (intact) can be dressed to remove the tissue (but not the skin of the gum) inside the skin.
Next, each ear has to be skinned independently (without cutting the delicate outer [furred] skin) right to the tips, and the ear cartilage is slowly exposed and removed.
The paws, still attached to the skin, have to be attended to independently. The skin on each foot is pulled down over the leg, inside out, and the toes, one after the other, are carefully cut off just above the claws (which remain attached to the skin). The pads on the feet also have to be skinned clean of fat, muscle and gristle.
The entire lion skin, intact, is then turned completely inside out and all the still adhering fat and flesh is carefully removed. The skin is then treated with special chemicals to protect it against decay and from skin-eating beetles.
The skull is then cleaned of all fat and flesh and its brains are removed. The brains are removed through the aperture at the back of the skull where the neck vertebrae had once joined the skull. The whole skull is then lightly boiled, scraped clean and treated with chemicals to eliminate the chance of any kind of decay and, again, to keep the insects away.
The skin, duly treated with chemicals, together with the skull, is then shipped off to the taxidermist. And the taxidermist, with great skill and artistry, creates the kind of mounted trophy that the hunter wants.
This explanation tells us why what remained of Cecil’s body, without the head, was found on Antoinette Game Ranch the day after the lion had been killed. There was nothing sinister about this story as Rodrigues tried to imply. Laying out a hunted lion’s skinned carcass, which few people in Africa want to eat, for the vultures to feed on, is a perfectly understandable thing to have happened. This is a classical example of how common and natural occurrences and processes, with perfectly simple explanations, can (and are) distorted by the anti-hunting animal rights communities all over the world. And it brands Rodrigues as being one of them.
What we can say with some certainty, about the hullabaloo that followed the killing of Cecil, is that Walter Palmer had no idea that the lion he had shot was a so-called famous lion with an iconic reputation. Indeed, Walter Palmer had never heard of a lion called Cecil. He had no idea, therefore, that he was killing a lion that everybody, apparently, loved and cherished. And, quite frankly, I am now equally sure that most of Cecil’s so-called iconic reputation was manufactured post mortem.
It is reported that Palmer was very upset to discover that the lion he had shot was equipped with a radio collar. Bronkhorst took the collar off and, with very poor judgment, apparently tried to destroy it. Why I have no idea? When the radio stopped transmitting, however, the whereabouts of the collar’s last signal (on Antoinette) was recorded by the Oxford scientists. So they knew exactly where to go to look for it. And they found it. By then, of course, they knew that Cecil had been shot and killed. And Bronkhorst was later taken to task about this offence as the criminal case against him progressed. But, to my knowledge, no conclusion about the matter of the collar was ever resolved.
Except for the unfortunate collar issue, it was Rodrigues, the animal rightists NGOs, and the journalists who were responsible for all the lies that generated the Cecil controversy.
Chapter 3 Who Let the Cat out of the Bag, and Why?