The Last Days of Cecil the Lion
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.
This photo depicts a whirlwind fight between a pair of brothers, Bush (left) and Bhubezi, in October 2012. Bhubezi had taken one of Cecil’s lionesses and the pair was battling to mate with her. I could hear Cecil (not pictured) roaring as he arrived to chase them off. They eventually displaced Cecil as the Backpans pride male, forcing him to flee his territory and team up with Jericho.
I was about 10 yards away in my research vehicle when I took this photo of Cecil and a young lioness. As a scientist, you are supposed to avoid anthropomorphism. But I feel we need to appreciate magical moments like this to avoid turning animals into objects for abuse.
This adult female giraffe was crossing the boundary back into the park when I found her. I was returning home from the office and drove off-road and up to the tracks to get the shot. I love images of the tracks with wildlife because it so graphically shows how easy it is to move from the safety of the park to the other side.
It was sunset and this herd of elephants had just finished drinking at a waterhole. They were scooping sand up with the tips of their trunks and blowing it over themselves to protect against biting flies. The baby is less than a year old, with her two sisters and their mother.
Bush and Bhubezi, when they were still young (just three years old), and living with their mother’s pride in 2010. Adolescent cubs, such as these, are large in body but have not yet developed much of a mane. They were after a herd of buffalo on a cold, misty morning at sunrise.
During the dry season in 2014, the pride had been feeding on an elephant calf they’d killed and were too full to play with this cub. She is about to go and look for trouble with her siblings.
I took this photo shortly after the previous one of the yawning cub who went looking for trouble with her two sibling cubs. When this lioness, their mother, awakened, she went looking for them. She picked one up, walked past me, and the others followed her back to the pride.
Cheetah sightings are rare in Hwange National Park. Lions will kill cheetahs just to get rid of the competition. I saw this cheetah sitting on an anthill. I drove off-road and waited for her to cross the track. Unbelievably, a francolin walked along the tracks right in front of the animal.
Sadly, quite a few animals in the park get killed by trains, including lions. Both passenger and commercial trains travel from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls on this track. The park has about 75 miles of railway as boundary.