#ShockWildlifeTruths: Hwange’s Cecil - The true backstory you might not know

2016-01-25 13:30 - Selene Brophy
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What if you started losing your hair? Bit by bit, seeing the gaping effects in your hairline, yet feeling powerless to do anything about the demise of your crowning glory, so to speak? 

I thought about this as I combed my fingers through my mop of dripping hair following a hot shower to rinse off the dust of my afternoon game drive. It felt like a delightful watered down version of the mud-bath enjoyed by the thirsty herd of elephants that continuously stomped through the watering hole of the Somalisa Luxury Tented Camp.

As a typical African bushveld sunset painted the Hwange sky in swashes of orange and yellow, I imagined what Walter Palmer, that infamous dentist who killed one of the world’s most famous lions thought of his similarly magnificent Zimbabwe setting back in July 2015?

And what it must have felt like to fluff his hands through Cecil’s mane, the mane he had paid US$50k for as a hunting trophy - discovering Cecil's collard status after the animal had died. 

The 14 650 square kilometre park is at the centre of the Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit - and Cecil was one of over 50 lions being tracked via satelite. 

Walter Palmer, by the way, is half bald.

As my guide, Peter Gaba explained during the earlier game drive, 13-year-old Cecil's striking black mane added mightily to the beast’s gravitas, allowing him to reign over not one but two of Hwange’s prides during his lifetime. The beast was also amiable, unfettered by tourists and just happy to go about his lion business, making him the darling of wildlife tourists near and far.

And it’s not hard to believe, if you consider what Cecil has achieved in both life and death.

The illegal hunt of Hwange's most famous lion has dominated weighted discussion around the controversial practice of not just canned lion hunting but endangered species hunting in totality. The event saw the world's largest airline deciding to stop the transportation of CITES I and II endangered hunting trophies. It also forced massive introspection and re-evaluation of hunting principles and practices, specifically from The Professional Hunters' Association of South Africa (PHASA).

But Wildlife conservation within Africa is a far way off from closing the gaping holes or winning the poaching war. Most recently, a moratorium on domestic trade in rhino horn was effectively lifted in a Pretoria court due to a technicality related to incorrect government procedures. It is believed that prominent private rhino owners who had contested the moratorium would look to encourage east Asian citizens to South Africa "to consume rhino horn in-country as a form of medical tourism". All this for keratin, right!?

I wondered how chuffed Palmer must have been with himself. Did he even stop to contemplate that once there were as many as 450 000 lions back in the 1940s, not as immeasurable as the shattering beauty of the star-filled Hwange night sky I saw as I looked up over dinner, but still? Did he even realise the gaping hole his sport was leaving in the now estimated 20 000 lions left on the earth – as we lose "an estimated 600 lions a year".

Probably not. And to think Cecil’s mighty head ended up as evidence in the case against the illegal hunt. Not fitting at all.

But what was rather apt for me was that almost immediately as we left Hwange for my transfer to the new Vic Falls International airport the next day, Peter spotted faint but distinctive tracks.

We hadn’t been able to spot any lions the day before. Elephants yes, but no lions – and it just didn’t feel right that I had come to Hwange National Park, having covered the hunt and death of Cecil extensively at the time, to not see any. 

He suspected we were on the track of the Junior Spice Girls – Cecil's three lionesses who since his death have been on the run with his seven surviving cubs. While the transfer to the new airport is about three hours, take heart that two of it is through the Hwange National Park - so it is pretty much a game drive. 

My heart leapt, the wind whipped as we chased the lion tracks that lit up like a runaway ahead of us, now that I knew what I was looking for.  

And then in the distance we saw them. Turned out not to be the Junior Spice Girls but Mopani and his lionesses.

Mopani, as Peter explained, was nothing in comparison to Cecil, but he was prowling for dominance. He was one of four young lions known as the Dynamite boys who in fact helped to solidify the friendship between Jericho and Cecil, his coalition partner at the time of his death.

WATCH: Peter Gaba shares Cecil's unique back story 

As African Bush Camps’ Shelley Cox explained, Cecil’s pride has become a story of hope and survival in the aftermath of the majestic lion’s death.

Jericho it appears is not taking over the safe guarding of the pride and has been unable to hold the territory from other younger males coming into the area. To date, Jericho has largely remained in the area outside of the camp, where Cecil died. Turns out Cecil was in fact courting another young lioness called Cathy in that area - seems Cecil’s motto was, if you’ve got it flaunt it - and Jericho has since decided to remain in this area with Cathy. 

Peter tells me in the 15 or so years that the Oxford research programme has been operating in Hwange, they've been able to restore stability to the system of males mating within the park. The Wildcru collard project has seen growth from about 80 lion males to over 500 in the park to date. 

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, more than 600 lions are killed legally every year by trophy-hunting tourists - a slow but steady loss of our majestic crowning glory that cannot be sustained if something radical is not done. And soon.

Just last week on the 20th of January the United States, which is the largest supporter of hunting tourism in Zimbabwean, issued a ban on hunting trophies from the Southern African country -which will certainly have some effect. US Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, who is responsible for the management and conservation said,  "The US did not believe enough measures were being put in place to support conservation efforts in local communities".

While global lion population numbers are said to be more optimistic than conservative, there is even more urgency and as Peter explains it happens to be places such as Somalisa who are working together with conservationists to try and turn the tide. 

"We've got a very good team here," Peter tells me as I watch the lions, completely awe-struck and contemplating the fierceness of the animal kingdom.

"People like Beks (Ndlovu, African Bush Camps CEO) want to make sure we can buy up the quotas before the hunting tourists can. They understand that we need to conserve these male lions or there will be nothing left. Zimbabwe needs more people like this."

WATCH: Luxury tented camp in Hwange reinventing the African experience 

Gaping holes yes, yet it would appear we're not entirely powerless to do something about the loss of the crowning glory of the animal kingdom.

Key Facts and Dates:

- According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature, lions are listed as Vulnerable with existing population estimates at between 20 000 to 35 000 animals. 
- Despite the numbers conservationists suggest lions have vanished from over 80% of their historic range - only occur in 28 African states.  
- The USA is the biggest market for Zimbabwe and South Africa’s hunting packages 
- According to the Department of Environmental Affairs and CITES, 1 094 lion carcasses were exported from South Africa in 2013.
- Hunting will be one of the main topics of the 2016 Tourism Convention, to be hosted in Victoria Falls from February 10 to 12.
- CITES CoP17 World wildlife conference will take place from 24 September to 5 October 2016 to tackle the world's biggest wildlife challenges and opportunities.


Want to get involved? Check out the following reputable conservation organisations: 

Panthera

Endangered Wildlife Trust 

Wilderness Foundation

Wildlands Conservation Trust

- WildCru

WildAid

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