12th August 2015

Why did the death of Cecil make news headlines?

Cecil the Lion

Trophy-hunting and game poaching is commonplace in wildlife parks across Africa, but it is only every so often that we hear about it in the media. So when Cecil – a SouthWest African lion – was shot dead at his Hwange National Park habitat in July, why did it make headlines?

Here we look at some of the possible reasons that Cecil’s death became so newsworthy.

Cecil’s cult status

In his native Zimbabwe, Cecil was a national treasure. He was a leader of a large pride and was renowned for his friendliness towards tourists and human beings – who he often let get close to him for photos and research. He will no doubt have left a mark with those from around the world who visited the Hwange National Park and had been able to take the sort of safe close-up pictures that would otherwise have been impossible. Many lions are shot or die through fight-inflicted wounds, but Cecil’s reputation among those who had visited the park made this story of much more interest.

Oxford University’s research project

Cecil was being tracked with a GPS collar at the time of his death, as part of a wider wildlife study by Oxford University led by Dr. Andrew Loveridge. His pain and subsequent death was therefore known to scientists from the project. This monitoring by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit brought the story to light with conservationists and animal lovers – shocking and enraging many people.

Dr. Walter Palmer: the classic pantomime villain

Nothing makes a story quite like a villain of the piece. Step forward Dr. Walter Palmer, who was revealed as Cecil’s killer some four weeks after the killing. This revelation fanned the flames of the media bonfire and gave publications a target to vent their anger at in. It also emerged at the same time that Dr. Palmer had bribed gamekeepers to carry out the hunt – an act of the native park authorities which has since been condemned by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as “failing in their responsibilities” – with $55,000.

That the death of a popular lion was caused by a wealthy American trophy hunter no doubt made it easier for the media to vilify him and his outlandish hobby. Amidst the furore of Americans who staged protests outside his practice demanding charges to be brought against him, several newspapers reported into the dentist’s private life and his previous “trophy” kills – as a lot of the focus started to switch from the shooting of a lion to the new public enemy number one who had carried out the act.americanprotests

The conservationist reaction

A large topical news story like this brings opportunities for a wide range of comment and opinions from a range of spokespeople.  It is therefore little surprise that a variety of animal protection and humanitarian groups were soon offering comments in column spaces. The most extreme of which was perhaps from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who claimed that Dr. Palmer should be “extradited, charged, and preferably hanged”.

The reaction was double-sided however. Many took to social media to express their disapproval at the “over-reaction” to the incident, alluding to their surprise that it had been such a big news story. Others, such as Vox, were dismayed at how much attention Cecil’s death had received in light of seemingly more pressing everyday ethical issues.

The PR effect

The episode has certainly raised questions over whether one trophy hunt should receive the widespread attention that might otherwise be going towards other causes. It is certainly an interesting example of how the media can fuel a story that has a relatively small number of actual developments.

To date, we are unsure of whether hunting laws will be changed in Zimbabwe, or indeed if Dr. Palmer will face any legal repercussions for his actions, so the story is set to have more twists along the way.