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Why Cecil the lion remains popular

"Large, powerful, but regal," Cecil was known for being comfortable around humans—and simply for having a name, say those...

"Large, powerful, but regal," Cecil was known for being comfortable around humans—and simply for having a name, say those that knew him.

For more than a decade, visitors to Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park would notice that one lion stood out from the rest—an enormous male with a long, shaggy black mane. The lion so endeared himself to tourists that he was given a name: Cecil.

These days, following the international uproar over his killing death, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't heard of Cecil. But lions have been killed by trophy hunters before and surely will be again. So what was it about Cecil that struck a chord with the international community?

"Cecil was the ultimate lion," says Brent Stapelkamp, a field researcher with Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), who knew Cecil perhaps better than anyone else."He was everything that a lion represents to us as humans," Stapelkamp says. "He was large, powerful, but regal at the same time."

And Cecil was close to humans, too. Stapelkamp has been studying the lion since 2008, and Cecil and his pride had been part of an ongoing research project with Oxford since 1999. Indeed, part of what made Cecil such a favorite among tourists on safari was the way he became accustomed to people.

Stapelkamp says Cecil would allow vehicles to get close to him, sometimes within just 30 feet (about 10 meters), "which made photography and research very easy." Stapelkamp once found Cecil and around 20 other lions from his pride feeding on the carcass of an elephant. It was a banner day for observation, and he remembers taking over 500 photos.

"He was receiving a lot of attention from both his females and his cubs," Stapelkamp remembers.

"The collaring of lions like Cecil have given us a vast amount of knowledge about lions and their behavior in the environment," says Stapelkamp. For instance, tracking the lions of Hwange National Park revealed that some of the animals range over long distances—even swimming across rivers that get in the way.

Stapelkamp says one of the WildCRU-collared lions traveled around 150 miles (240 kilometers) from Hwange National Park to the city of Livingstone, across the border in Zambia. It seems the lion attempted to swim across the Zambezi River, which is notorious for its white-water rapids.

Cecil lived in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. American dentist Walter Palmer and professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst lured Cecil out of the park by tying a dead animal to their vehicle. Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow once the lion left the park, but only wounded him. Palmer and Bronkhorst tracked Cecil for 40 hours before shooting him with a gun and killing him. Palmer paid around $55,000 for this hunt.

Cecil was being studied by scientists at Oxford University, and had been wearing a GPS collar when he was killed. The lion left behind his cubs, which may face danger from rival males in the park. 13-year-old Cecil was well-loved in Zimbabwe. Palmer said in a statement that he had believed the hunt was legal, shining a light on the murky legality of big game hunting.

Lions roaming Africa have dropped in number from 200,000 to 30,000 over the last century. Cecil’s killing sparked outrage, with nearly half a million people signing a petition for Zimbabwe to stop issuing hunting permits.

"He was washed 400 meters [nearly a quarter mile] downstream before he could get out," says Stapelkamp. (By studying these animals, WildCRU hopes to better understand the threats they face in the wild and learn how to mitigate them.

WildCRU also runs an anti-poaching team, a local conservation-themed theater group, and an education campaign that targets schoolchildren. The Oxford project also works with local farmers to find ways to coexist with lions, and partners with Long Shields Lion Guardians, a program led by Stapelkamp to lessen conflicts between people and lions.

Luke Dollar, program director for National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative, says he remembers Cecil for the sheer fact that he had a name, which was unusual. When animals become well known to people, as Cecil did, it "becomes easier to relate to them and communicate their tales, which creates an additional draw for tourism and human interest," Dollar says.

Lions are at the top of every safari tourist's wish list, and Cecil's iconic status alone probably helped generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in tourism each year. Even in death, Cecil's impact on global big-cat conservation cannot be underestimated, he notes. 

But "one of my greatest fears is that, in light of recent events, would-be visitors and ecotourists might refrain from visiting Zimbabwe or other African countries and parks where big cats are also readily seen," says Dollar.

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