By Nicole Rivard
Standing in front of Brent Stapelkamp’s photograph of Cecil the lion laying next to his ally Jericho, taken May 27, 2015 in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, and reading the caption “on the morning that was to be the last time Brent would see Cecil,” a wave of mixed emotions washed over me—overwhelming sadness and anger…followed by hope.
And that’s just what conservationist and photographer Stapelkamp wanted when he agreed to exhibit his photos of Cecil and his pride at Six Summit Gallery in Ivoryton, Conn., over the summer and to give a lecture about his decade of work as a lion researcher for Oxford University’s Hwange Lion Research Project.
Stapelkamp’s primary role was to mitigate conflict between lions and the local community, a hallmark of in situ conservation, while collaring, tracking and studying the lions themselves. Because of the project, Stapelkamp got to know Cecil intimately, and no one felt the loss of the lion, whose life was taken illegally by an American trophy hunter in July of 2015, more than him.
“So much has been made of Cecil’s story and the tragedy of it,” Stapelkamp said at the beginning of his lecture. “But I’m very much an optimist, and I want to look to the future. It seems like no story in the history of the world, in regards to animals, has touched so many people as the story about Cecil. So now we have to harness that momentum, that passion, that awareness and really do something tangible for lions.”
Friends of Animals couldn’t agree more. We are more inspired than ever after meeting Stapelkamp and seeing his exhibit, a heartfelt tribute to Cecil, to move Cecil’s Law across the finish line in Connecticut and New York in 2017 and introduce it in other states as well. Cecil’s Law would ban the importation, possession, sale or transportation of the African elephant, lion, leopard, and black and white rhinos or their body parts—all threatened and endangered species.
We thought you would be inspired by Stapelkamp too, so we sent him some questions in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife have started the Soft Foot Alliance, which serves to design and implement long-term sustainable solutions that promote human-wildlife co-existence.
His responses provide insight into the plight of African lions and how legal trophy hunting is contributing to their demise.
Friends of Animals was one of the first international organizations to challenge the long held belief that regulated hunting can be a valuable conservation tool for endangered animals and we remain steadfast in our commitment to end importation into the U.S. of trophy-hunted animals by 2020.
“The trophy hunting industry really doesn’t like me,” Stapelkamp said. “I’ve had some really aggressive encounters with trophy hunters. But still, I like to look at the bigger picture—all I’ve got in my defense is truth. And that’s what I am trying to promote. I am trying to get away from all of the aggression, and try and look to the future.”
Why did you agree to put your photos of Cecil on exhibit in galleries in Connecticut and New York after his tragic death? Do you hope to motivate people to contribute to true conservation efforts in Africa and to help get legislation passed to end trophy hunting of African lions?
I have been a budding wildlife photographer for years now, so to say it was all selfless, my motives to exhibit my work, would be untrue—but you hit on a very good point. Photography can be many more times more direct and inspiring in a world brim full of empty rhetoric, and so deeply I hope that my images touch people and spark a want to work for wildlife. I also hope to show a side of wildlife in Africa that many don't... and that is the reality that the idea of ‘wilderness’ is a fallacy. Lions sleep on railway lines and bump into cyclists and elephant's drink out of swimming pools etc. Can you talk a little bit about the Hwange Lion Research Project and its main objectives?
The Hwange Lion Research Project is one of the largest (in terms of study animals) and longest (17 years) lion studies in Africa. It was started by Dr Loveridge and Professor David MacDonald of Oxford University’s WildCRU in 1999. They wanted to answer the question "what effect does lion hunting outside Hwange have on the park lions?" And that answer lead to a hunting moratorium for four years, from 2004 to 2008. With an increasing lion population, in the absence of hunting, new questions emerged. The conflict with livestock owners on the peripheries of the park was a big issue and that is really where I fit in. The Hwange Lion Research Project’s conservation work is based on a very strong scientific foundation, and it is recognized for its successes. Cecil of course was one of the Project’s study animals and has really brought its work and indeed the real story around lions to the forefront.
Thousands of hours in the company of lions gave you a unique perspective of their lives and the threats that they face. What would you say is the biggest threat to African lions—is it human overpopulation and loss of habitat because it leads to more and more human/lion conflict? How many lions in your study died because they killed cattle or were perceived to be a threat to cattle?
Seventy-five percent of the habitat African lions have lost was lost in the last century. And that is one of the major issues facing lion conservation now—they are simply losing land to people. And where people live lions don’t do very well.
I couldn't give you an exact number of lions killed for conflict as I no longer have access to that data, but I remember that it approximately 40 percent of the lion deaths in our study were attributed to direct retaliation for killing catlle, or sometimes preemptive killing for a perceived threat.
Habitat loss in Africa is a very serious threat to lions and is one that creeps up slowly with little sign until one day you realize that a lion hasn't been heard for years, and then it's too late. There are just 20,000 lions left today. That’s a 43 percent decrease in the last 20 years. I was trying to think about how to put that into context. Princess Diana was killed 20 years ago. You can imagine how fresh that still is in your mind. And in that amount of time we lost 43 percent of our lions.
It’s drastic and its happening right now. There are just 20,000 left today. That’s a 43 percent decrease in the 20 years. I was trying to think how do I put that into context. Princess Diana was killed 20 years ago. You can imagine how fresh that still is in your mind. And in that amount of time we lost 43 percent of our lions. It’s drastic and it’s happening right now. Cecil’s story is not unique.
Throughout our work to get Cecil’s Law passed in Connecticut in the beginning of 2016, one hurdle was getting legislators to understand that just because trophy hunting is legal, doesn’t make it right and doesn’t mean it contributes to conservation? Can you talk about how legal trophy hunting exacerbates human/lion conflict? For instance, can you explain how it directly contributes to it in communities because it interferes with the social dynamic of lions?
Absolutely! I have seen it many times personally where one part of my job was to answer a call from a hunter to come and retrieve our collar off a lion he had shot. Invariably it was shot just a 100 meters from the park (any deeper into the hunting concessions would be useless because those lions were shot out long ago). I would then prepare my Lion Guardians and their communities for the conflict that would surely come in a matter of weeks. I have seen this many times now, direct link between trophy hunting and months of chaos and anger in surrounding communities and lions being blamed, and killed.
When a male lion dies, his male offspring leave home early. If Cecil was alive, his offspring would only leave the pride at 3 ½ or 4 years old. By that time he weighs at least 120 kilograms, is proficient in hunting and has a good chance of finding his own territory right away. But when the father dies early he leaves home early, sometimes as young as about 16 or 18 months which means he’s inexperienced, physically small and doesn’t have any confidence. So where does he go that he doesn’t get beat up by other lions—smack dab amongst people.
Because of the social structure in lions, there is a process called infanticide. That means that in the absence of a father to protect the cubs, new males will come in to take his place. But they can’t afford to wait for those cubs to mature before they can mate and get their own genes into the system, so they are going to kill the cubs. I’ve seen cases where four brothers, all of them were illegally shot, and then their 16 cubs died very quickly after that. So because of one trophy hunted lion you lost 20 lions.
And as you can imagine a lioness, a mother, won't allow her cubs to be killed without a fight or without trying to take them to safety. And where, in Africa, where there is so much pressure on land, can she go to avoid this infanticide? Among people. And what is there to eat among people where her natural prey has been exterminated? Cattle.
So because of trophy hunting, those two demographics start moving in and killing people’s livestock. Then people become angry, because their entire livelihood disappeared in one night. So when a lion comes in and kills your goats at night in Zimbabwe, literally the next morning you have to tell your child he or she is not going to school next term. So that’s why you have a heightened increase in conflict, yet I am trying to tell people they shouldn’t kill lions. It’s a very difficult job.
Another negative side effect of trophy hunting is it weakens the overall gene pool. You see the male shot by a trophy hunter would inevitably be the pride male because the trophy hunter wants the biggest, blackest maned lion and nature makes sure that he is the pride male. After a hunter has shot the strongest male, lions who were weaker and perhaps lost the fight before, kill the strong cubs and add their weaker genes into the mix. The trajectory changes completely.
You mentioned Lion Guardians? Who are they and what do they do?
The lion guardians are known as the Long Shields and there are now 14 of them between the south of Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls. They are men and women recruited and hired to work from their own homes in communities on the edge of the park. Those lions that “conflict” with cattle are identified and collared in satellite collars. The Long Shields receive the lions location every morning via the smartphone app WhatsApp, and if that lion is deemed to be a threat to cattle then the guardian jumps to action. He races there on his bike, makes sure no cattle are around and in danger and shares the warning with his or her own Whatsapp group that includes school teachers, parents, etc. If the lion is too close to people or livestock their job is to chase it back to the protected area. Firecrackers and vuvuzelas (plastic horns used at football matches) are used to scare the lion. It has been very successful with more than a 50 percent decrease in cattle killed since they started four years ago. Soft Foot Alliance will work alongside the Long Shields.
Friends of Animals was one of the first international organizations to challenge the long-held belief that trophy hunting—in this case, of lions—can be a valuable conservation tool for endangered animals. Can you discuss, like you did in your presentation, how this in not the case in Zimbabwe? Can you specifically describe how very little money gets to on the ground conservation efforts and why?
On paper it sounds like it could work, the reality is these countries are the most corrupt countries on the planet, particularly Zimbabwe. There are oppressive people just interested in turning profits. When someone pays $50,000 to kill a lion, it just disappears into Swiss bank accounts. And very little gets used for conservation. It’s just not working. The amount of money coming in directly from hunting is not doing enough. We are losing lions hand over fist, so we need to think of something else. So I think the world largely speaking, has had enough trophy hunting. It’s only a small group of people who can even afford it.”
I was raised and trained here in Zimbabwe to believe in an amazing program called CAMPFIRE! It means the Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources and its central premise is that people living with wildlife should directly benefit from it and not just bear all the costs. We would shout its praises from the rooftops but over the years, the crack developed. In my last 10 years here I can honestly say that I have seen almost no reinvestment in conservation from hunting returns. Middlemen and foreign accounts perhaps flourish, but actual reinvestment into the land and its wildlife I have not seen. Corruption and greed finds its way in and the benefits disappear. That leaves the people living with an elephant and a lion to pick up the tab. There are some good trustworthy groups to support such as the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.
When did you first “meet” and collar Cecil? What was it about him that set him apart from some of the other lions in Hwange? What did tourists appreciate about him and what do you want people to know about him who weren’t lucky enough to see him in the wild?
We first saw him with his brother in 2009 I think it was—he was a nervous lion from the bottom of the park. After a big fight with Jericho(he wasn’t Cecil’s brother as the media reported), Jericho’s father and his brothers and Cecil's brother was killed, Cecil settled in a neighboring area—a wonderful area full of tourists. There he lost his nervous disposition and became so used to vehicles that he once walked underneath three Americans sitting on the tiered seat on the back of a land rover.
The neighboring territories existed for a while until two new males chased Jericho and Cecil out. They disappeared for a while and then about a year later they were seen together rubbing heads and licking each other. They established this coalition, they realized in biological terms that two is always going to be better than one. So they formed an alliance.
I would say to folks that will never know a lion, to sit in the company of an animal as grand as Cecil is truly humbling and that is why I love it. You can forget yourself in their company because there is something truly beautiful and innocent and they just "are".
Can you clarify some of the misinformation that was put out in the media about Cecil’s death, when and how he died at the hands of the American trophy hunter, and whether it was a legal trophy hunt?
Cecil was poached, or hunted illegally. A minimum age limit for hunting lions is set at six years old by the wildlife authorities in Zimbabwe. Of the 5 lions legally hunted in 2014, four were under six, so as a penalty there were no lions on license for 2015. Above and beyond that, if you hunt in Zimbabwe with a bow you need a parks ranger with you and if you hunt a lion legally you need a parks ranger with you. Palmer had neither.
Cecil was shot with the first arrow at 10 p.m. on the night of the July 1, 2015. Wounded, he was left for 11 hours or so, and not 40. Then they found him again and finished him off with a second arrow. That was key because the American trophy hunter wanted a bow hunting record, and if a rifle was used the record would be disqualified. This particular hunter already had several record animals—all "taken" with a bow.
The collar was removed and walked around for a couple of days to try and fool us that the lion was still alive before being destroyed. We have never seen the collar again. I believe they moved the collar around to fool us and perhaps buy the time to get their client out of the country.
Cecil would not be allowed as the record for the bow hunt I am sure, and actually Safari Club International has cancelled Palmer’s membership. Can you elaborate on what happened to the local guides and the American trophy hunter who killed Cecil after they were investigated? Do you think justice has been served?
Justice has certainly not been served. No one has been convicted of anything yet. Zimbabwe dropped its request to extradite the American and the cases concerning the local men have all but died a quiet death.
If you could meet the American trophy hunter who shot Cecil with a bow and arrow so he could obtain the world record, what would you like to say to him?
I'd ask him if he truly believes that he had the right to deny the world such an animal? Because he has the money, he thinks the world is there for the taking, illegally or legally?
You and your wife have recently started the Soft Foot Alliance in Zimbabwe, a new Trust dedicated to improving the lives and landscapes of people living on the boundary of Hwange National Park and achieving a sustainable co-existence with wildlife. Lions, hyenas, elephants, baboons and honey badgers are the main focal species as they impact people’s livelihoods on the park’s boundaries. Can you give a brief description of each of the initiatives you have started to reduce human/lion conflict?
Soft Foot Alliance is a very broad and holistic project umbrella that has one central theme, and that is improving the lives of people living on the outside of the park. This is the coalface of conservation and where many different projects speak about "community empowerment and benefit sharing," it is rarely done. Competition for scarce resources bring people and animals into conflict situations. By maximizing our efficient use of resources we limit that exposure and people’s vulnerability. For example, we have created rocket stoves: These simple to make stoves minimize the need for firewood by using only small sticks readily available closer to home. The tips of the sticks burn efficiently in an insulated chimney and very little smoke is produced. Smoke related disease is a huge problem in rural areas where open fires are used indoors. This stove minimizes the need for women to go into the protected areas to collect firewood which limits their own exposure to wild animals and reduces their encroachment, which is the major threat to protected areas today.
We are also want to provide for the more widespread use of canvas boma livestock enclosures. They are a wonderful tool to keep cattle safe from carnivores and to help fertilize fields. The theory is the lion can’t see through the canvas so it won’t jump over. And cattle can’t see the lion so they don’t panic and break out. We can outthink these animals—we don’t have to kill them. We just have to use our brain matter. Part of Friends of Animals’ mission is vegan advocacy. You are a vegetarian. Wouldn’t it make sense to educate locals about eliminating cattle from their diets altogether and adopting a plant-based diet, which would eliminate one of the main reasons for human/lion conflict? Is this something you might consider doing with the Soft Foot Alliance?
It is an interesting point, but people keep cattle not primarily for meat here, but for something like a bank account. So if cattle are not being eaten and are the main cause of conflict, why keep them? They are used to develop grasslands, stabilize and regenerate soils for fields and agriculture. The people favor maize (corn), millets and sorghum, but fertilizers are expensive and can actually destroy soil fertility, so the cattle manure and urine focused in the soils by positioning the bomas above the fields is much better.
How is Cecil’s family doing since his death? Cecil's family has made it. In fact two of Cecil's lionesses were seen mating with a new male last week, so that officially means his cubs reached