When Cecil, the magnificent, 13-year old, black-mane lion was killed by an American dentist on an illegal trophy bow hunt last year, the world responded with shock and horror. As details emerged, a soft-spoken yet fiercely passionate Zimbabwean was repeatedly seen and quoted in the media, reporting directly from the field. That was photographer Brent Stapelkamp, 38, the last person to fit Cecil with a GPS satellite collar and to photograph him, just a month before he was killed.
For the last decade, Stapelkamp had been quietly following and researching lions in Zimbabwe’s largest game reserve, Hwange National Park, for Oxford University’s Hwange Lion Research Project. “I had the dream job,” he says. Cecil’s death hurtled Stapelkamp into the spotlight, educating a largely unknowing public about the secret life of trophy hunting. A year later, he’s still speaking out on behalf of African wild lions, whose numbers have suffered catastrophic declines. “We had 1.2 million wild lions in the 1800s,” said Stapelkamp. “Now there are 20,000.” In addition to unsustainable trophy hunting, the decimation of Africa’s top predator is precipitated by the illegal bushmeat trade, loss of habitat and prey, and conflict with local people, which is the largest direct cause of lion deaths in Africa today, according to Stapelkamp.
The following is a collection of images Stapelkamp shot of Cecil, his pride, and neighboring wildlife in Hwange from 2010 to 2015.
Photo: This is one of my favorite photos of Cecil, taken in late May 2015, on the last morning that I saw him. I had bumped into Cecil and another lion, Jericho, while racing across the park to collar another lion. I call it “Cecil taking the air” because of his regal posture. The grasses here turn golden in May, the start of our winter season.