Wounded by the American dentist’s arrow, Cecil the lion eluded the hunters for two days.
He was then fatally shot, photographed, beheaded, and skinned.
And to most of us, it seemed the deadly dentist and his guides had done their horrific worst.
But that bloodshed on the African savannah was likely only beginning.
Scientists who have been studying the lions in this area of Zimbabwe since 1999 have voiced concern that the killing of Cecil will trigger social upheaval that could very well end with the death of other lions, perhaps including a dozen cubs.
The scientific term for this is the perturbation effect.
“Namely the cascading effects on the surviving lions of the death of one of them,” read a statement by the Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU) of Oxford University in England. “In brief, we have found that when a male lion is killed, because of the way their society works, a likely consequence is the overthrow and death of other adult male members of his weakened coalition (normally of brothers), and the subsequent infanticide of his cubs by the incoming new coalition of males.”
In other words, you would not want to be Cecil’s progeny right now.
Some weeks ago, WildCRU Director David Macdonald had the thrill of watching from close quarters as Cecil moved through Hwange National Park, where lion hunting is outlawed.
“He was a magnificent, highly dominant male lion,” Macdonald recalled to The Daily Beast via email on Wednesday.
Cecil had on a GPS collar as one of some 100 tagged lions that have been tracked by WildCRU. He was 13 years old and had been part of the study since 2008.
“We had followed his movements in minute detail,” Macdonald noted. “These are remarkable data.”
During the time Cecil was studied, he formed a coalition with another male named Jericho. They had two prides of a half-dozen females and about a dozen cubs.
Upon learning of Cecil’s death, Macdonald proclaimed himself both horrified and heartbroken.
“As people devoted to wildlife, and having known Cecil personally, we are deeply saddened by his death,” Macdonald said.
He also feared that more deaths would follow.
In 2010, Macdonald and his colleagues published a paper titled “Socio-spatial behaviour of an African lion population following perturbation by sport hunting.” They note: “Lions are social felids which display high levels of co-operation and antagonism. Competition between groups is frequently aggressive, and aggression is often precipitated by male take-over or territorial defence.”
But at the time of that writing and into this month, the highly dominant Cecil and his sidekick Jericho seemed to have achieved a certain détente with the other males in a society with inherent tensions.
“They occupy territories that are inherited by daughters from mothers, while males compete for succession,” WildCRU observes. “It is generally accepted that male and female lions differ in the resources that are most important to them. Females are influenced by food dispersion patterns, males by access to female lions.”
All that had reached a dynamic balance.
Then guides hired by the Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer allegedly lured Cecil from the protection of the park.
The balance was shattered with an arrow, and Cecil fled bleeding where he had strode supreme. He was finally killed after 48 hours that are terrible to contemplate.
But the scientists knew it would not likely end there. They had witnessed the aftermath of at least 24 other instances when trophy hunters killed lions in the study group.
“During male take-over infanticide is a regular phenomenon, and small cubs are most at risk from incoming males,” the paper says.
Some experts suggested that Jericho would kill Cecil’s cubs to save his own young from competition.
The WildCRU statement suggests another scenario, in which Jericho himself would be killed by a coalition that he and the magnificent, highly dominant Cecil had previously held in check. The newly dominant males would then move to kill the progeny of the vanquished.
And you have to figure the females would seek to defend their young.
Also, lions in a state of social upheaval are more likely to come into conflict with adjoining human communities.
All this because of the dentist who has issued a statement saying he was unaware that Cecil was dear to those who had studied and admired the lions of the area.
“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study until the end of the hunt,” Palmer said Tuesday. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”
Legal or not—and illegal seems possible—the killing was a grievous wrong extending beyond the immediate act.
Maybe Palmer really did not know that Cecil was being studied until he saw the GPS collar the hunters are said to have then sought to destroy.
But that does not excuse him from failing to consider what impact the killing of any male lion would have on the other lions, most particularly on the cubs.
In case Palmer decides to go after a different kind of big cat next time, he should keep in mind that lions are not the only ones whose social structure is shaken by perturbation when one of them is killed.
“This phenomenon has been noted in several species… including leopard, bobcat and puma,” Macdonald and his colleagues report.
Whatever happens in the aftermath of Cecil’s killing, WildCRU will be studying it with the hope of gleaning some good from the tragedy.
“Despite our sadness, as scientists, we seek to learn from this event, and to find some benefit from it,” WildCRU said in a statement. “We are working hard to study the consequences of Cecil’s death on his pride and their neighbours, so that we learn as much as possible.”
And that effort will further the group’s overall aim.
“Our goal is to understand the threats that lions face, and to use cutting-edge science to develop solutions to those threats,” WildCRU said.
The statement continued: “Our work is scientific, we have satellite-tracked the movements of over a hundred lions and monitored every detail of the lives of more than 500 individuals—we run a courageous anti-poaching team, a local conservation theatre group, and education campaign that gets information into every school in the district, and we work with local farmers to help them live alongside lions and improve their livelihoods.”
On Wednesday, Macdonald and the rest of WildCRU thanked Jimmy Kimmel and the millions of others who have voiced outrage over what happened to Cecil and urgent concern for the fate of other lions.
“It is amazing that this episode has heightened awareness of lion conservation worldwide,” Macdonald said. “Conservation involves huge challenges, both in the science and the practice, and we are deeply grateful for the public interest and support.”
Donations have been coming in, and the group could always use more.
“It costs us approximately £150,000 [per year] to maintain the lion project at its current level of excellence, and in reality we need to expand it, to study and conserve lions over the entire landscape that spans western Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia,” Macdonald said. “We can do this only if we secure funds. To give you an idea, each satellite collar costs about £1,500, with an annual fee to download the hourly locations from the satellite of £500. We need £20,000 [per year] to keep our anti-poaching team in the field, cutting illegal snare wires. To bring a Zimbabwean student to study conservation in Oxford on our world-renowned Diploma course costs £15,000. We need four wheel-drive vehicles, tires for them, fuel to run them—so no donation is too small to be helpful.”
Those who join in are the very opposite of lion hunters. They are lion saviors.
“It will be a wonderful monument to Cecil the lion,” Macdonald said.
And it would be all the more wonderful if those dozen cubs are somehow among the survivors.