THE BIG LIE The Story of CECIL THE LION by Ron Thomson Chapter 1

1. Preamble

NEVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD have so many people in so many different countries become so equally besotted by the reported killing of a single wild animal. In this case, by the death of, by all accounts, a truly magnificent Zimbabwean male lion called Cecil! But everybody, it seems, wanted their version of the events to be heard. Cecils epitaph, therefore, is so congested and so confused, consequent upon having all these fingers meddling in the pie, that it is difficult to separate the fact from the fiction.

But lets try to sift the wheat from the chaff.

There are abundant versions covering the killing of this lion on the internet. The most authentic representations are excerpts from scientific papers. What has been written by many people with a huge personal bias, however, cannot be taken at face value until it has been measured against the facts pertaining to wild lion ecology and this I have attempted to do.

Ecology is the study of a living organism, in this case the wild African lion, its environment and its interaction with other living organisms plants and/or other wild animal species with which it shares that environment. Essentially ecology, is a study and studies produce results. That is, facts which equals the truth. These should be the only factors against which the results of scientific research, and of honest reporting, can and should be measured.

Cecil grew up within the milieu of a 5 000 square mile (13 000 square kilometre) Zimbabwean national park called Hwange. This sanctuary is located in the Western Matabeleland province of Zimbabwe in south-central Africa. Hwange is home to a large number of other wild animals including elephants, buffaloes, leopards, and a great many other lions. It carries a host of wild herbivores, too, that make up the lionsdaily source of food. The habitats in Hwange are very diverse.

The initial narrative states that Cecil was being studied and tracked by a research team attached to the University of Oxford (UK) as part of a long-term study. What was not made clear at the beginning of this controversy was the purpose of the Oxford studies. So, the reader, when he begins to read the narrative, will initially gain the impression that Cecil was the subject of a very special and individual research program. And that illusion has been promoted and perpetuated by many people who have since climbed onto what became the Cecil-the-Lion bandwagon.

But Cecils was not a special case.

Since 1999, when the scientists of the Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit initiated their lion research project in Hwange National Park, they have been tagging dominant male lions in all the game reserves many prides to determine their life patterns. This included researching when and how young lions become dominant enough to take over a pride, what their behaviour and function is as dominant pride males, when and how dominant male lions are dethroned and what happens to a once dominant male after it has been deposed. So, in the Hwange lion research programme, Cecil was only one small part of a very extensive project.

Tagging involved darting the lions to render them comatose, then fitting them with a GPS radio collar equipped with a satellite tracking device which transmittedsilent radio signals every two hours. From these signals, the scientists were able to accurately record each tagged lions exact location in the game reserve, night and day. Cecils movements, therefore, had been religiously recorded from 2008 to the time of his death in July 2015. Thus the location and the size of his territory at the time of his death was accurately known.

Sixty-two dominant male lions were tagged by the Oxford scientists between 1999 and 2015. Of which, by 2015, 34 had died. Twenty-four of these had been shot on license by sport hunters on private properties just outside the national park boundaries. When you add Cecil to that number it becomes twenty-five. Cecil, therefore, was just one of sixty-two in the total sample. And of the dominant males killed by hunters, he was number twenty five. So, in terms of relative importance, Cecils death was a useful statistic but of little individual relevance.

Across the length and breadth of Zimbabwe, 49 hunted lion trophies were exported in 2013 alone. And between 2005 and 2008, the countrys overall hunt-take-off (licensed kills) averaged 42 lions per year. This information will give you a further perspective with regard to the relative importance of Cecils case. Nevertheless, his recorded history was important within the overall scientific findings but he was just one small part of the greater whole.

The internet writings record some interesting facts about Cecils life. The Oxford researchers believe Cecil was born in 2002. Another lion, thought to be Cecils brother, was noticed in his company in 2008. In 2009 these two lions, together, challenged an established pride. In the fight that ensued Cecils brother was killed, and both Cecil and the leader of the pride were seriously injured. The leader of the pride was shot and put out of his misery by the park game rangers because of the serious nature of his wounds. After the fight, Cecil retired to another part of the park (unnamed) where he eventually established his own pride which numbered twenty-two.

Cecil was forced out of this latter territory in 2013 by two young males and he retreated to the eastern border of the park. There, Cecil created a coalition with another male lion called Jericho. And there, these two lions, and their respective prides, established a combined family unit which consisted of Jericho and Cecil, half-a-dozen females, and up to a dozen cubs. Cecil was the dominant male. The report claims that all the cubs had been sired by both these males.

Both Jericho and Cecil had been tagged with GPS tracking devices, so their exact whereabouts at any time, day and night, was known to the Oxford scientists.

Most of the ground-breaking news about Cecils demise came from the vivid imagination of a Zimbabwean citizen of Portuguese origin, Johnny Rodrigues. It transpired that after he had picked up the rudiments of the facts surrounding Cecils death, he embellished them greatly. But nobody knows how he came by his original information. And nobody has been able to either verify or to deny the tale that Rodrigues spun.

If we are to get to the nitty-gritty of the truth, therefore, we are going to have to look at the time-lines in the Rodrigues story.

The Oxford scientists tell us that Cecil was forced out of an established territory (the location of which was not identified) in 2013, by the two young malesWe have to look at the time-lines of the Rodrigues story, however, if we want to confirm or to discredit what he said.

After this dethroning, Cecil retreated to the eastern border of the park. Even though we dont know where that place was, the eastern part of the park is far removed from the parks main tourist-game-view centres. These records are derived from satellite tracking data which I have no reason to doubt.

Cecil then teamed up with a large male lion called Jericho. Exactly when that happened we dont know but it must have been sometime towards the end of 2013. The scientists claim that these two lions created two prides which they shared, or rather, which they combined. The joint pride numbered half-a-dozen femalesand a dozen cubs all sired, so the statement goes, by Jericho and by Cecil. It seems that the pride based itself in the Kennedy Vlei area of Hwange National Park between the Ngweshla and the Kennedy 1 and 2 bore-holed game water supplies.

Then, on 2 July, 2015, Cecil was killed by a licensed hunter on a private game ranch called Antoinette, which lay to the north-east of the prides territorial boundaries inside the national park.

So, lets now put all this information together.

Sometime during 2013 Cecil was deposed by two young males and he was evicted from his established territory. Between that happening and July 1st, 2015,when Cecil was killed, Cecil and Jericho, somewhere on the eastern boundary of the national park, created a coalition. They effectively combined their two prides and they bred 12 cubs. And, presumably, they settled into a new and defendable territory which, according to the map supplied by the scientists, was in the vicinity the national parks Kennedy Vlei.

Kennedy Vlei intrudes ten miles into the national park from Kennedy railway siding which is on the parks north-eastern boundary. And during that same period of time Cecil developed his so-called reputation as the parks main [tourist]attraction.

Looking at the time line information, that period of time must have been no more than 18 months duration.

But, consider this:

The parks best tourist game viewing seasons span the dry seasons of every year, June to October.

During the rains the grass is green, nutritious and palatable and both the grass and the woody shrubbery are in full leaf. The game animals of Hwange, therefore, disperse into this luscious habitat. The occurrence of surface water is then not limiting, so the animals can live wherever they can establish their summer home-ranges. Visibility is poor during the rains and game viewing is not great. So, during the rains, tourism within Hwange is much reduced.

It is a fact that immediately following the very first tropical rainstorm of the new rainy season, the once teaming herds of game animals you can see during the dry season, simply disappear. During the rains, November to April, even the resident game rangers dont see an elephant, buffalo or lion for days on end.

It is probable, therefore, that during most of the dry season of 2013, Cecil and Jericho were busy setting up their new coalition and settling into their new territory. We have no idea just when or where this actually happened, but 2013 was a very busy lion-business year for Cecil.

Between mid-2013 and mid-2015, therefore, there was only one good game-viewing tourist season and that was the six months long dry season of 2014. So, that was all the time that Cecil had to develop his reputation as the most iconic lion in Africa.

That Cecil was a beautiful specimen is not in dispute. And that he was highly photogenic is also not in question. It is the super-superlatives with which Rodrigues, the international press, the foreign animal rightist NGOs, and the Zimbabwe government officials flooded their propaganda that I wish to now bring to your attention. Within days of Cecils demise he was being showcased as the most famous African lion in history by anyone and everyone who had obtained tickets for the Rodrigues propaganda circus.

According to the record, it would appear that Cecil-the-Lion was a comparatively unknown entity before his death on 2nd July 2015. There was also nothing unusual about his death. It was exactly the same as the deaths of 24 other dominant male lions that had also been collared by the Oxford scientists before him. He was shot outside the boundary of Hwange National Park by a licensed trophy hunter. There was, therefore, nothing unusual about that either! Furthermore, Cecil and the other lions that had been shot by licensed hunters, was hunted legally. He was not poached.

In retrospect, it is reasonable and honest to point out that Cecil only had one six-months-long tourist game-viewing season to create his so-called iconic tourism image. In my opinion, however, his legend evolved as a direct consequence of the intense propaganda and the false rhetoric that surrounded his death. And it started with the disinformation campaign that began with stories generated and spread by Johnny Rodrigues, which he did for the purpose of his own self-aggrandisement.

Suddenly, the existence of Cecil, a 13 year old male lion, exploded from obscurity to become an instant and so-called major tourist attraction in Zimbabwes famous Hwange National Park. By all accounts he was 13 years old. That was the age the Oxford scientists guessed he was and I dont doubt the accuracy of their assessment! But was he truly such a major tourist attraction? I dont think so! I truly believe he gained most of his immense reputation posthumously and that it was fabricated within the voluminous animal rights propaganda that his death generated. And it all began with Johnny Rodriguescarefully fashioned lies.

It has been said that Cecil had become popular because he was accustomed to people, allowing tourist vehicles to come as close as 10 metres (33 feet) from him, thus making it easy for tourists and researchers to photograph and to observe him. This may be so, but over what period of time did all this happen? Six months at the most!

Cecil was the parksattraction, one Zimbabwe National Park official announced. I doubt, however, that that was true. The biggest tourist attraction Hwange has always had, was the parks excessive number of elephants. Today, there are 20 times more elephants in Hwange National Park than there should be!

A senior Zimbabwean politician claimed that Cecil was known to a segment of society, a privileged segment, both local and international. This might be true but it could only have been true during one short tourist game-viewing season in 2014.

Cecils killing went largely unnoticed in the animals native country. The countrys Chronicle newspaper wrote: It is not an overstatement [to say] that almost 99.99 percent of Zimbabweans didnt know about this animal until Monday (when the newspaper was printed with the news of Cecils death). Now we have just learnt, thanks to the British media, that we Africans have had Africas most famous with us all along, an icon. But the BBCs Farai Sevenzo stated: The lions death has not registered much with the locals.

Indeed, the countrys acting information minister, Prisca Mupfumira, when questioned about Cecils killing remarked: What Lion?

Zimbabwes lesser officials, however, climbed on the band-wagon with a vengeance, stating that the killing of Cecil had already caused a decrease in tourism revenues. A significant decrease in tourism was noted in Hwange where the lion had lived,they told the hyped-up press. And the press expanded on every word that was uttered. Many international tourists who had planned to come to Hwange to see the famous lion, had cancelled their trips, the press people were told. This killing is a huge loss to our tourism sector that was contributing immensely to the national wealth,Emmanuel Fundira, President of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, is reported to have said:We had a lot of people, in terms of visitors, coming into the country (simply) to enjoy and to view Cecil. So, really, this was a great loss.He further proclaimed that Cecils presence was a draw cardand he called Cecils death the demise of an icon. The director of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority, Kaikoga Kaseke, said that tourism had been booming, but that Zimbabwe was now perceived as a country which was not interested in protecting and promoting animal rights (sic?), and this had also had a negative effect on the tourism sector. So, Zimbabwes own government officials were seriously complicit in the creation of the fabricated legend.

On the 1st August 2015, in response to Cecils killing, the hunting of lions, leopards and elephants along with all bow-hunting was immediately suspended in areas (just) outside Hwange National Park by Zimbabwes environment minister, Opa Muchinguri, who said: All such hunts will only be conducted if confirmed and authorized in writing by the Director-General of Zimbabwes Parks and Wildlife Authority, and only if accompanied by parks staff whose costs will be met by the landowner. (This moratorium was, however, lifted after 10 days when the truth started to emerge).

International animal rights propaganda, written by people who have never been to Africa, and who had never ever set eyes on Cecil, claimed that the hunter who killed Cecil had deprived Zimbabwes lion population of the very best lion genes available in the country. And that, because he was collared with a GPS transmitter, they stated, was proof that he had been part of a very important research project that had now been terminated.

None of these claims are true as you will see as we progress through this narrative.

However, to satisfy those people who have been led to believe that the hunter who killed Cecil had deprived Zimbabwe of Cecils store of exceptional lion genes, let us examine the situation from the genetic point of view.

I visualise all wild animals as having four life-quarters and that the same relative life experiences pertain to every life-quarter no matter what the animal species might be. Lets see how this idea plays out in a lion population.

People who know about the living circumstances of wild lions will tell you that they rarely exceed a life-span of fifteen years. Although that may be the case, however, the lives of dominant old males may be cut short prematurely when young males take over an old males territory and defeat him in battle. So, many old lions may be lucky to reach the age of twelve.

So, lets assess a dominant male lion as having four life-quarters each comprising three years.

The first life-quarter is a three year life-span that is taken up with the lion being born, being weaned, being evicted from the family pride, becoming an independent juvenile, and entering independent sub-adulthood as a young nomad. A young male lion of three years old, for example, has already grown a respectable mane. This period takes the lion up to the age of three years.

The second life-quarter is a three year life-span that is taken up with the lion growing into young adulthood. This takes the young lion through the period of its adolescence. Lions passing through this phase, at the end of it, become twice the size and twice the mass of a three-year old lion. Young male lions that survive to this stage of life, take the lion up to the age of six years.

The third life-quarter is a three year life-span in which the lion becomes big and strong and fully mature. It is during this phase of the lions life that it is prepared to fight-to-the-death to gain ownership of an established pride from its owner. This takes the lion up to the age of nine years.

The fourth life-quarter is a three year life span during which time the lion secures its position as a pride-owning dominant male. This takes the lion up to the age of twelve years. By the age of twelve, however, a mature male lion is likely to become more and more senile, loses its drive, its vigour and its strength and it is likely to lose its pride to a younger male (or males) at any time. When Cecil died he was thirteen years old. He was then, therefore, well beyond his prime.

Chronologically and biologically, therefore, at age thirteen, Cecil was ready to be evicted from his throne. By then it is probable that he had lost most of his drive to mate anyway. So, when he was shot and killed with a bow-and-arrow by Walter Palmer in July 2015, he did not take very many good genes along with him into the happy hunting ground. He had been dispensing those genes to several lionesses throughout the third and fourth quarters of his life. By age 13, therefore, Cecil had done his duty to Hwanges lion population, by long ago spreading his genes far and wide.

Was Cecils death a loss for the lions of Hwange National Park? In my opinion, no it was not! In many ways, Cecils time had come! If he hadnt died from an arrow through his heart, it is likely that, thereabouts that time, a younger and stronger male lion would have killed him. All the hype about Cecils value as a dominant pride male in his prime was nothing more than animal rightist propaganda. That story was one of many that were designed and fabricated to reinforce the many other lies that the animal rightists told about his demise.

 

 

***

It was a panic reaction, therefore, that Opa Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s Minister of the Environment, appealed to the American government for the extradition of the American hunter who had shot Cecil ‘illegally’. But shortly after that, when she had re-assessed all the facts, she changed her mind and offered an embarrassing retraction.

The journalists, however, had no such scruples. They climbed on the bandwagon and in their stories they invented facets to the killing of Cecil that had never seen the light of day before. But it satisfied their extravagances which ventured on being arrant sexual voyeurism. And the origin of it all were the tales that flowed, originally, from Johnny Rodrigues’ fertile mind.

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Part 2 THE KILLING OF CECIL to follow soon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Not true.

[2] Not true.

[3] Not true.

[4] Not true. Palmer and Bronkhorst found Cecil mid-morning the next day, 250 yards from the bait site. And Palmer then shot and killed him with a second arrow. Cecil was not killed with a rifle.

[5] Let’s not forget that all this happened because Rodrigues told lies to gain publicity for himself and for the ZFTC, and to attract international funding for his ZTFC. And he had absolutely no compunction about unjustly painting Palmer’s name black.

[6] Not true. When he went to court, the case against Bronkhorst was peremptorily dismissed.

[7] Johnny Rodrigues suffered from chronic colon cancer for many years. He died in Portugal on 17th September2018. He never made it to New York and Washington DC.

[8] Not true.

[9] Not true.

[10] Not true.

[11] Not true.

[12] I worked as a young game ranger out of Main Camp, for three years, in the early 1960s. And for two years (1981 – 1983) I was the Provincial Game Warden-in-charge of Hwange National Park.

Ron Thomson

I am NOT a ‘trophy hunter’ - and never have been. I am not involved in the trophy hunting safari business. I am also not a game rancher. But I have ‘administratively controlled’ professional hunters and safari outfitters in my capacity as a government game warden. I am an 80 year old ex-game warden with 60 years of continuous experience in hands-on wildlife management, and national park management, in Africa (1959 to 2019). In breakdown, I have 24 years experience in the management of national parks in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe - and in the management of the wild animal populations that lived inside those national parks; one year as the Chief Nature Conservation of the Ciskei in South Africa; three years as Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa; and I worked for three years as a professional hunter in the South African Great Karoo (taking foreign hunters on quests for plains game trophies). I discovered, however, that professional hunting was not my forte. I worked as an investigative wildlife journalist for 30 years in South Africa. I have written fifteen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the subject of wildlife management and big game hunting in Africa. Five of my books are university-level text books on wildlife management. I am a university-trained ecologist; was a member of the Institute of Biology (London) for 20 years; and was a registered chartered biologist for the European Union for 20 years. I have VAST experience in the “management hunting” of elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and hippos (as part of my official national park work in the control of problem animals); and I pioneered the capture of black rhino in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley (1964 - 1970). My university thesis was entitled: “The Factors Affecting the Survival and Distribution of Black Rhinos in Rhodesia”. Look at my personal website if you want any further details about my experience: www.ronthomsonshuntingbooks.co.za.

Ron Thomson has 211 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

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