When US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel shed tears on his TV show about the killing of a lion that had been nicknamed Cecil, he helped unleash a storm of media coverage, social media response and comment that shed an interesting light on media coverage of wildlife and conservation issues. The killing of the lion in Zimbabwe in July 2015 led to media coverage of an unprecedented nature. The media hits on the story were greater than for any previous conservation story in living memory. But the tone and content of the stories was also as important as the scale. The use of language was hyperbolic, the attention to detail poor and the use of sources fell outside what is normally considered good journalistic practice. This article analyses the coverage of the story in the British media and the likely effects for the understanding of lion conservation and wildlife in general.
On 1 July 2015, an American hunter wounded a male lion with an arrow in the Gwaai River Conservancy, next to Hwange National Park in southwestern Zimbabwe. The following day, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer tracked and killed the lion with a second arrow, though some accounts say that a professional hunter shot the animal with a rifle; there is no verifiable version of the final events. The dead lion was wearing a satellite tracking collar, fitted by lion researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at the University of Oxford (Macdonald et al. 2016: 13). The researchers had nicknamed the lion Cecil.
Over the next couple of weeks there were sporadic and gradually increasing numbers of reports of the killing of the lion in the American, British and global media. Sustained, low-level reporting stressing that the animal had been given a name, was wearing a tracking collar and was known to tourists who visited Hwange National Park – one of Zimbabwe’s main safari destinations. But in the last five days of July, coverage in mainstream newspapers, broadcast and online media coverage rocketed to nearly 12,000 stories a day in late July and early August. Social media posts (Facebook and Twitter combined) reached 87,533 posts daily during the same period. To quote Macdonald et al. of WildCRU, ‘in terms of attracting global attention, it was the largest story in the history of wildlife conservation’ ( 2016: 4).
The story turned from reporting what was, as the WildCRU researcher on the ground in Zimbabwe Brent Stapelkamp told me, one among a regular series of lion hunts in the conservancies and hunting concessions surrounding Hwange, into an outburst of global mourning for a lion who had been given a name. While there is evidence that he was known to many visitors to Hwange, the media decided he was either the world’s or Zimbabwe’s best-known or best-loved lion. The sustained coverage ensured he did for a while become a very famous lion. The nature of the reporting made the story more appealing by inserting a strong dose of jeopardy, that his death would inevitably lead to the killing of his progeny by male lions who would takeover his pride. This is common among lions but is not a certainty and turned out not to be the case with Cecil’s cubs. It became a focus for a number of reports and part of the context of most of the longer stories. This helped give the narrative in the media a looking ahead aspect and provided a means of sustaining it. A wildlife researcher at the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, Dr Nikki Rust, pointed out that ‘The death of a celebrity often makes the headlines, but it is less common that the death of wild animal has the same effect. However, it appears that the entire world has mourned the loss of Cecil the Lion’ (Rust 2015).
Alongside the edited, mainstream media coverage there was a social media storm. The BBC in a survey of trending social media stories said that ‘Socialmedia users have gone into overdrive in an attempt to shame the man who has admitted to killing Cecil the lion’, and followed up by recounting excerpts from social media postings – ‘He has now been swamped with abuse and dark humour from web users around the world. Hundreds of – predominantly onestar – reviews have appeared on the Google page for Palmer’s dental practice. ‘Coward’ and ‘Bloodthirsty trophy hunter’, they say. ‘He lured me into his dental practice, then shot me with a bow and arrow’, another jokes
[…] Now a petition demanding ‘Justice for Cecil’ […] and requesting the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, stop issuing hunting licences, has now soared past 300,000 signatures […]. The hashtag #CecilTheLion has appeared almost 250,000 times in the past 24 hours on Twitter, as the topic trended worldwide. A single tweet from the British comedian and actor Ricky Gervais has been retweeted and favourited more than 40,000 times.
(BBC News 2015a, original emphasis)
(BBC News 2015a, original emphasis)
The Cecil the Lion story could be said to have gone viral in the edited, mainstream media, too, and the deluge of stories, with constant updates on online sites of the broadcast and print media, was highly unusual for a conservation or wildlife story.
Macdonald et al. (2016: 2) have already looked in detail at the number of stories and their timing, but what also stands out in my own survey of the coverage by the BBC, The Guardian, Independent, Daily Telegraph, The Times, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror and the Sun is the value-laden language used, the choice of sources of news, the heavy focus on celebrities and choice of expert opinion quoted. I surveyed the output from a range of mainstream media using their online sites (to take in updates and not just one-off printed or broadcast stories). The choice of these organizations was to give a spread from public service broadcasting by the BBC through the quality newspapers, as identified by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), represented by The Guardian, Independent, Daily Telegraph and The Times, through the most widely read of the ‘morning mid-market’ papers, the Daily Mail, to the two most widely read tabloids, the Daily Mirror and the Sun. The period surveyed was from 26 July, with the first reports in the UK media of the killing of Cecil of Lion, to 30 September, by which time coverage had declined to sporadic reports.
Following Philo’s analytical method, I will try to demonstrate not only how stories were phrased but ‘the range of arguments which existed’ and therefore ‘what was available for journalists to choose from’ as they compiled their reports or wrote their stories (2007: 170). The way that interested groups, NGOs and other stakeholders get their views represented in the coverage will be examined. The intention is to explain the use of emotive and sensational language and the effect this could reasonably be expected to have on the audience. Basing my approach to the role of the news media on Richardson’s broad description, that ‘journalism exists to enable citizens to better understand their lives and their position(s) in the world’ (2007: 7), I ask whether the reporting of the Cecil the Lion story helped readers/listeners/viewers better understand the story and the wider context of wildlife conservation, and, following Richardson, examine how the reporting and comment on the events served to ‘shape issue agendas and public discourse […] reinforce beliefs […] shape people’s opinions’ (2007: 13).
What really happened and the development of the media frenzy
The lion named Cecil was 13 years old. By the standards of wild lions, he was old. Lion specialist and head of the Panethera conservation group, Luke Hunter, estimates that wild male lions have a possible lifespan of 16 years, ‘but rarely over 12’ (BBC News 2015b), and is frequently far less, as a result of a variety of causes of death ranging from being killed in fights with other lions over control of prides, injuries received during hunts, disease, starvation and killing by people to protect livestock or through trophy hunting (Young 2015). As David Macdonald, the director of WildCRU, told me in an interview, the lion study project in Hwange National Park and part of the Kavango Zambezi (KAZA) eco-system started in 1999. The aim was ‘to provide evidence to underpin the conservation of lions populating this region while advancing the well-being of the human communities living alongside them’. Part of the study involved assessing the effects of trophy hunting on the lions – something that resulted in the Zimbabwean government reducing by about 90 per cent the number of licenses issued to hunt lions around Hwange. Despite this, between 1999 and 2015, around 65 lions were documented by the research team as having been hunted on the legal hunting concessions surrounding the protected area of the park, 45 of which had been fitted with tracking devices as part of the study – none of the deaths attracting media attention (Macdonald 2016: 2). Both David Macdonald and one of the research team on the ground in Zimbabwe, Brent Stapelkamp, told me in an interview by e-mail that it was not illegal to shoot a collared lion if it was in a hunting concession area that had a valid quota for lions – but the collar should be returned and not left with the carcass.
The exact sequence of events of the wounding and then killing of Cecil is almost impossible to put together from media reports, despite repeated coverage of the basic story. So many different accounts exist that it is almost impossible to get an accurate picture from the press, even after the WildCRU director and researchers had given multiple interviews to the media setting out the story as accurately as they could. The media relied very heavily on accounts from Zimbabwe that had not been verified, such as from Johnny Rodrigues (interviewed via Skype by the author on 27 September 2016) of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) (a virtual one-man band conservation pressure group), which frequently turned out to be incorrect, as detailed below. The narrative given here is based on the WildCRU account and interviews with David Macdonald and Brent Stapelkamp (Macdonald on 16 November 2016 and Stapelkamp by e-mail on 24 May 2016).
On 1 July 2015 at 10-o’clock at night Walter Palmer (a wealthy dentist from Minnesota) shot at Cecil with a bow and arrow and wounded him on Antoinette Farm in the Gwaai Conservancy bordering Hwange National Park. The farm was used by its owner, Honest Ndlovu, as a hunting area. While the evidence suggests that Palmer had no reason to believe that the hunt was not legal, it was illegal as the professional hunter involved, Theo Bronkhorst, and the landowner did not have a valid quota for that year to kill a lion on the farm. For a hunt to be legal in Zimbabwe, it must be on land set aside for hunting and the professional hunter organizing a hunt and the landowner must have a valid permit for a lion to be killed on that piece of land. The hunters tracked the wounded lion and it was killed eleven hours later (not the 40 reported by Rodrigues in his accounts, it seems by Palmer using another arrow, though that is not fully verified according to Macdonald et al. and Stapelkamp (Macdonald et al. 2016: 4). Cecil was not lured from the National Park as Antoinette Farm was a normal part of his home range, but an animal carcass was used as bait to attract him to where the hunter lay in wait. The use of bait is not illegal, nor is shooting a lion using a bow. The only illegal aspect of the hunt was that the place where the lion was shot did not have a valid quota for lions; the professional hunter should have handed the tracking collar to the wildlife authorities, but did not.
How the media reported and responded to the killing of Cecil
In the days between Cecil’s death on 2 July and the massive spike in media coverage on 29 July (after US talk show Jimmy Kimmel broke down in tears live on air when talking about the killing) there were sporadic media references but no great interest until 23 July, when the story began gained traction across an increasing number of mainstream outlets and social media. The quantitative search carried out for Macdonald et al. by the media monitoring company Meltwater indicated that on 29 July global news coverage exploded to 11,788 hits on the story. The company recorded 94,631 media references to the story between 1 July and 30 September (Macdonald et al. 2016: 6). The highest media coverage occurred in North America, Britain and then South Africa and Botswana. On social media platforms, Twitter recorded 70,219 hits, Facebook 9961 and YouTube 185 in the period under review (Macdonald et al. 2016: 67).
The media attention led to demonstrations outside Walter Palmer’s home and dental surgery – these started before Kimmel’s outburst. But the major reaction was on social media and in responses on the comment pages of mainstream media websites. WildDCRU’s media survey and a survey of communications they received during this period indicated ‘an overwhelming distaste for trophy hunting of a big cat’ incorporating moral indignation and generalised concern for animal welfare. Macdonald et al. concluded that many people who read the media stories and reacted had been unaware that trophy hunting still happened on an appreciable scale (Macdonald 2016: 9).
The first report in the United Kingdom’s mainstream press, in the London Daily Mail on 23 July, said that
With his striking mane and relaxed manner around the cameras, Cecil the lion was one of the stars of Zimbabwe’s biggest national park […] the much-loved lion was horrifically killed by a hunter. After wounding the great beast with an arrow, the depraved hunter spent two days tracking down the injured lion before killing the animal with a rifle. After skinning the corpse, the lion’s noble head was hacking off and taken by the hunter as a hunting trophy.Not an objective report, but one that would be representative of the emotional and frequently inaccurate reporting that followed. There were only anecdotal accounts to support the idea that he was a ‘star’ of the park, was ‘much-loved’ (rather than just being a photogenic lion which had been given a name), plus the emotive description of him as a ‘great beast’ and the hunter as ‘depraved’. He was tracked for eleven hours, not two days.
The story is largely attributed to Johnny Rodrigues of the ZCTF, which is described as an anti-poaching group. The ZCTF is effectively a one-man operation that seeks to highlight and condemn hunting. It has no specific standing with Zimbabwe National Parks or privileged access to information from the parks or the lion researchers. When I interviewed Rodrigues and asked him about the inaccuracies in stories citing him as the source, he blamed the journalists for misquoting him in every case, though only did this in an interview with the author after the sensational coverage had raised ZCTF’s profile. Inaccuracies included the time between the wounding and killing of the lion, the location of the hunt, the use of bait to supposedly lure the lion from the national park and the identity of the hunter. David Macdonald of WildCRU told me that Rodrigues was an enthusiastic amateur conservationist but that he had no direct access to WildCRU’s research data and he would have been ‘surprised if Johnny Rodrigues had access to any reliable data’ on Cecil and his fate. This first report based on information from says he may have been lured from the park. When I challenged him on the veracity of his information, he said that what he told reporters had been misconstrued and added to by the journalists for emotive effect.
The Times followed up on 25 July, again using the term ‘much-loved’ for the lion and it is said it was killed ‘after straying a little past its (Hwange’s) boundaries’ – omitting that the pride territory included areas outside the park and that, as Macdonald and Steenkamp told me, it was usual for Cecil to move outside the park. The report wrongly says Cecil was a lone hunter having been rejected by his pride – in fact, he was one of two dominant males in a pride with several females and cubs. Rodrigues of ZCTF is quoted as saying that the lion was killed by a Spanish hunter. This was a case of mis-identification as the hunter was the American dentist Palmer. Rodrigues denied to me that he had first suggested the hunter was Spanish, saying that a reporter had asked him this and he had said as far as he knew it could be a Spaniard or it could have been an American.
The Daily Telegraph then joined in on 26 July, reporting that ‘Zimbabwe’s favourite lion’ had been killed by an American hunter. The unnamed hunter is quoted as saying he did not know that it was a well-known lion. Here it should be worth noting that Cecil was known to the researchers and some park personnel and to an unknown number of tourists who had photographed him. Cecil was said by Macdonald in an interview with me to have been both photogenic and relaxed in the presence of tourist vehicles and so was known to many visitors. Zimbabwean newspapers, such as the government-run Herald, would later question whether anyone apart from small groups of foreign tourists and safari guides had ever heard of the lion.
The Daily Mirror took up the story on 26 July. In it Cecil had become ‘One of the most famous lions in Africa’. The charge that he was lured from the park was repeated. The Mirror quoted Rodrigues as saying,
Cecil’s death is a tragedy, not only because he was a symbol of Zimbabwe but because now we have to give up for dead his six cubs, as a new male won’t allow them to live so as to encourage Cecil’s three females to mateRodrigues was basing his speculation about the fate of the cubs on what David Macdonald told me was the strong possibility that a new male would takeover Cecil’s pride and kill his cubs. The media was only too happy to keep the story running with a ‘cubs doomed’ motif. The cubs were in greater danger, but, as facts have shown, not doomed in this instance. Macdonald’s expert opinion is that the loss of a pride male would in normal circumstances lead to a high probability of a takeover of the pride by a new male or coalition of males and this would usually result in infanticide. But in the case of Cecil’s pride, his co-leader Jericho remained and there was no rapid takeover by other males. As Macdonald put it to me, the media like a simple story and took a probability and ‘hardened’ it into a definite fact.
On 27 July, the BBC weighed into the story. Its online news site reported that the ‘iconic’ Cecil had been shot by a Spaniard with a crossbow and a rifle, with Rodrigues again cited as the source. This was stated as fact, which it clearly was not and had not been verified in any way with other reliable sources. Rodrigues claimed the use of a bow and arrow heralded a new trend aimed at avoiding arrest. ‘It’s more silent. If you want to do anything illegal, that’s the way to do it’, he told BBC’s Newsday radio programme (BBC News 2015a). At no point into my research into the story, especially with the WildDCRU researchers or with professional hunters in southern Africa, was this viewpoint put to me. Rather, bow-hunting appears to be a particular obsession with some US hunters who seem to see it as more ‘real’ or authentic hunting,1 but few others.
Following up on responses to the growing number of stories, the Independent said on 27 July that the killing of Cecil had promoted calls for a European Union ban on importing lion trophies, citing Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder. Will Travers CEO of the animal welfare and conservation group, the Born Free Foundation, was quoted as condemning the killing and supporting a trophy import ban. Born Free was to be a regular source of critical quotes throughout the life of the story but without an identification of the group as an advocacy organization with the stated aim of ending all trade in wildlife; it was presented as an expert source.
The Daily Mail jumped in again on 27 July with an accusation, totally unfounded and subsequently shown to be so by the more accurate narrative from WildCRU, that the hunter paid a park ranger £36,000 to lure the lion from the national park. The story said that
The gamekeeper was said to have been paid to encourage Cecil to stray over Hwange National Park’s boundaries, enabling the hunter to shoot him without fear of prosecution. Police and Zimbabwe Parks Authority both declined to comment on the allegations, which were made by the Zimbabwe Conservation Taskforce.Again the same questionable source used without verification or corroboration to give a misleading account.
The BBC seems to have been one of the first to correctly identify the hunter as US dentist Walter Palmer. The Radio 1 Newsbeat programme said on 28 July that Palmer reportedly paid $50,000 to hunt the lion with a bow. Again the ZCTF is cited as the main source, with the accusation that an animal carcass dragged behind a car ‘to lure Cecil the lion out of a national park in the middle of the night’. Professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst and landowner Honest Ndlovu were named for the first time. The latter were said to be due to appear in court in Victoria Falls to face charges of poaching. The Zimbabwe Parks Authority reported as saying the two had no permit or quota for lions and so would be charged with arranging an illegal hunt, legally not quite the same thing as poaching. ZCTF’s Rodrigues was then quoted as saying that Cecil’s co-pride male Jericho would now kill Cecil’s cubs – something which is very unlikely as Jericho would not be able to tell which were his and which were Cecil’s cubs. The following day the BBC reported that Palmer had apologized for killing the lion but insisted that he believed he had been on a legal hunt.
On 28 July, the reporting grew a little more factual with The Telegraph quoting WildCRU researcher Brent Stapelkamp as saying Cecil as a very confident lion. He also said that the other pride male, Jericho, would have to protect the pride territory alone, clearly indicating that he did not see Jericho as a threat to the cubs. At the end of the story, The Telegraph inaccurately concluded that Cecil ‘as a collared lion living in the national park, should not have been targeted’, ignoring that there is no ban on shooting collared lions and that part of his territory was outside the protected area. There was little attempt to provide any context about protected areas, private safari operations and hunting concessions.
The Daily Mail on its website on 28 July stepped up the demonization of Palmer as a cold-blooded killed. The report said he was intent on collecting ‘the severed heads and limbs of the world’s finest animals. The bigger the beast the better: lions, tigers, rhinos, bison, elks, anything that looks great in his snuff trophy cabinet. Dr Palmer tours the jungles, prairies and safari parks of the world hunting his prey’. Palmer was certainly an enthusiastic hunter but the way the story is reported presents hunting as an activity that is beyond that pale and Palmer as singularly murderous. Writing in the Daily Mail the same day, the celebrity commentator Piers Morgan painted a picture from his imagination of
the cosmetic dentist gleefully cuddling myriad fabulous animals he’s just killed and mutilated. His trusty bow-and-arrows nestled against their still twitching bodies […]. He’s just a smirking, vile, callous assassin with no heart, whose shameless boasting of his disgusting exploits is almost as repellent as his exploits.The Daily Mirror joined the vilification and, as many other media outlets did, sought comment from the Born Free Foundation, quoting its spokesperson Dominic Dyer as saying that Palmer was one of many North American hunters going to Africa but that
This one seems to be willing to push the boundaries to get to animals he wants to kill […]. The Zimbabwe authorities say he wasn’t given a licence to use a bow to go into the national park to kill an animal. You can’t kill an animal at night in the park, so that was illegal as well.While one can understand animal welfare groups using this as an opportunity to further their opposition of trophy hunting, again the media coverage is one-sided and quotes an advocacy group conducting a campaign as though they were independent and objective experts – and repeating a version of events that was factually incorrect.
The BBC reported on 29 July that the professional hunter who guided Palmer had appeared in court charged with failing to prevent an illegal hunt. He had pleaded not guilty and was released on bail of $1000. The landowner, Honest Ndlovu, was said to be due to appear in court later, but there is no record of him being charged and the charges against Bronkhorst were later quietly forgotten. In a later report on its website on the same day, the BBC reported the social media storm unleashed against Palmer and that demonstrations had taken place outside his house and dental practice. The report also said that the British comedian and actor Ricky Gervais, well known in America for his controversial hosting of awards ceremonies, had tweeted to condemn the killing and that his comment had been retweeted 40,000 times, while the hashtag #CecilTheLion had appeared 250,000 times on Twitter in the previous 24 hours.
By 29 July, the story had taken hold across the British media and was being reported with constant updates but also some greater in-depth analysis of how trophy hunting should be organized. The BBC’s online news site had moved on to an examination of the nature of hunting (BBC News 2015a). It set out the official regulations in Zimbabwe for legal trophy hunting and then asked whether there was any way in which hunting helped or could coexist without harming conservation programmes. The story quoted Emmanuel Fundira, president of the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, who described Cecil’s killing as a ‘tragedy’ for tourism in Zimbabwe, but went on to defend trophy hunting. He explained that if carried out ‘sustainably’ it could benefit conservation in areas not suitable for tourism or on the edge of tourist areas. Fundira argued that the money paid by big game hunters can be used for conservation, and employed local people who might otherwise become poachers.
The event on 29 July that changed the Cecil story from one receiving a reasonable amount of attention and a moderate level of reactions on social media, was what the Daily Telegraph website on 29 July called the ‘impassioned rant’ by US TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel when talking about the shooting of the lion; Kimmel appeared to shed tears. The newspaper said Kimmel had demanded of Walter Palmer:
The big question is, why are you shooting a lion in the first place? I’m honestly curious to know why a human being would be compelled to do that. How is that fun? Is it that difficult for you to get an erection that you need to kill things?The Independent reported that Kimmel had then appealed to people to get something positive out of this by donating to WildCRU’s research programme. David Macdonald said that soon after, the WildCRU website crashed as so many people – an estimated 4.4 million – were trying to get on to it to post supportive comments and donate money. He said the publicity generated and money raised as a result was the silver-lining of the tragedy, and it had served to start a serious debate on the future of lion populations, conservation and the relationship between conservation and hunting. Over $1 million was donated in a few weeks to fund research. The Independent also reported that in addition to Kimmel’s comment on US TV, the model Cara Delevingne, comedian Ricky Gervais, actress Juliette Lewis and other celebrities including MC Hammer, Sharon Osbourne, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Mia Farrow, Kristin Davies and Lennox Lewis had all used Twitter or other social media to condemn the killing. What had been a wildlife story was rapidly becoming a celebrity event, as performers from the worlds of comedy, film, TV and music joined in with condemnation of the killing and often of trophy hunting as a whole. The Bond film actor Roger Moore wrote in the Daily Telegraph on 29 July that he agreed with the founder of the US animal rights group PETA, which had called for Palmer to be ‘be extradited, charged and, preferably, hanged’, adding that by hanged they meant punished not executed. It also reported that Dominic Dyer of Born Free had said the killing of Cecil would affect the whole lion ecosystem in the region, a claim that has proved less than prophetic, as Cecil’s pride has survived not suffered, let alone threatening the lions of Hwange more generally
Looking at the other side of the debate that was developing over the ethics and the future of hunting linked solely to the Cecil case, The Telegraph on 29 July ran an article by Jonathan Young, the editor of the hunting magazine The Field, on the contribution of hunting to economies and the relationship between hunting and conservation (2015). He said that trophy hunting generated gross revenues of at least $201 million per year in sub-Saharan Africa and that ‘a minimum of 1,394,000 km2 is used for trophy hunting’. Young concluded that it creates ‘economic incentives for conservation over vast areas’ and that without it, habitat would be lost and turned over to uneconomic livestock or subsistence farming that would not generate the same income for local people and would lead to the loss of the wildlife. It was one of the few extensive pieces from the other side of the hunting argument in an extended period of press coverage of hunting that gave more weight to the voices of those emotionally disturbed by the killing of Cecil and to animal welfare groups committed to opposing hunting. The Sunday Times on 2 August looked in a balanced way at the relationship between hunting and conservation, citing a South African professional hunter and David Macdonald of WildCRU on the possible benefits of regulated hunting as a means of earning income that would encourage habitat retention for wildlife. The newspaper asked the key question, ‘how do you protect wildlife in places where tourists don’t go?’ and suggested that many African countries see hunting as ‘placing a value on wild land in a continent with a burgeoning population’, arguing that more of this this money should get to local communities. The story cited Macdonald as saying, sustainable hunting is possible. The newspaper concluded that given the possible benefits of controlled trophy hunting, pressure from the media, politicians and celebrities to have the United Kingdom and EU ban imports of hunting trophies might damage rather than help the conservation of lions. These more balanced examinations were rare in the mass of sensational and highly emotional reports showcasing the views of celebrities and the social media comments of those outraged by the killing.
A very different approach was evident in one of the few pieces on the story in the Zimbabwean media. Writing in the government-controlled Herald on 30 July, Alex Magaisa said that he had never heard of Cecil and neither had friends, and family he had asked in Harare after the reports started mounting in the global media. He concluded that ‘the manner in which the story has been presented by the international media seems somewhat far removed from the lived realities of most of the local people’ (Magaisa 2015). Interestingly, on the same day the Zimbabwean columnist Farai Sevenzo wrote on BBC’s African news website that ‘Zimbabweans feel somewhat bemused by the attention the world is giving to the killing of a lion’. He said the country was confused by the sudden spike in interest in Zimbabwe, especially as it did not relate to the high unemployment figures, the food shortages, the state persecution of street vendors or the lack of medicines for the sick, ‘but from a lion named “Cecil” by conservationists’ (BBC News 2015c).
A BBC story on 30 July noted that protestors were still outside Palmer’s dental surgery (which was closed with Palmer said to be in hiding) carrying placards reading ‘Justice for Cecil’, ‘Trophy hunters are cowards’ and ‘Prosecute poachers’. Many newspapers revelled in the chance to use headlines like ‘the hunter becomes the hunted’ (in the Daily Telegraph and The Times on 30 July). This coincided with growing calls, including in a leading article in the normally conservative The Times on 30 July, for Britain and the European Union to take action to deter trophy hunting. It argued that
there should be a complete ban on all lion trophy – hunting imports into the EU from any African country until lion populations have been thoroughly and credibly counted. In those countries where lions are genuinely endangered, the ban should be total and permanent. There can be nothing glamorous about killing a species in peril. (Anon. 2015b)The pressure of media coverage and public opinion as expressed through social media posts pushed the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, into publicly condemning the killing – even though Cameron himself had been a keen hunter of foxes before the hunting of foxes was banned in Britain, a ban opposed by Cameron. The growing outcry and pressure through the media on governments in North America and Europe to consider measures to end the importing of hunting trophies and the general level of public outrage and criticism began to have an effect. The leading American hunting organisation, Safari Club International, announced that they were suspending the membership of Walter Palmer and had launched a full investigation into Cecil’s death.
The Zimbabwean government finally entered the fray on 31 July when Oppah Muchinguri, the Zimbabwean environment minister, said Dr Palmer was a ‘foreign poacher’ who had financed an illegal hunt of Cecil, an ‘iconic attraction’ in the country’s famed Hwange National Park, according to the Daily Telegraph. The supposed fury of the Zimbabwean minister and calls for him to be extradited to face trial in Zimbabwe dissolved once the Zimbabwean government investigated the details and found that there was no evidence that Palmer, whatever one thinks of the ethics of his actions, had knowingly broken the law. The attempts to prosecute the professional hunter came to nothing and the landowner, Honest Ndlovu, was not charged with an offence perhaps because he was a well-connected businessman with close personal and family links to the governing ZANU-PF party (Scoones 2015).
The media criticism of Palmer continued, though. The BBC Today programme presenter and former Washington correspondent, Justin Webb, was quoted in The Times on 31 July on the story. He cleverly summed up reasons why the story ‘had legs’, as media editors describe stories that will continue to hold audiences, by referring to Palmer’s occupation and location:
Cecil the Lion was killed by an American. And not just any American: a suburban American. A man actually called Walter. A dentist, for crying out loud. Worse: Walter J Palmer is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, famous for its manicured parks and not much else. In other words, Dullsville itself.He had identified the rather odd collection of elements that gave the story extra novelty and bite; after all, who likes dentists? In the Daily Mail on the same day Quentin Letts also seized on the dentistry and boring suburbia angle, writing that
Romance was brought low by the mundane. Distinguished free will was extinguished by something sterile and cruel. A suburban dentist! What a paradox that a creature so fantastically fanged as Cecil the lion should have been slaughtered by Walter Palmer, a middle-aged, balding, Midwestern American who applies his working hours to the preservation of teeth.This was no’ John Wayne but a seemingly dull tooth-puller’. In the same report, the Mail did give some context to the story with background on the number of lions remaining in Africa and quotes from an American conservation biologist, Stuart Pimm of Duke University, that hunting was not the main cause of decline in lion numbers. Another WildCRU lion researcher, Hans Bauer, was cited as saying, ‘there’s a lot of habitat in Africa where lions exist because of trophy hunting […]. While it removes individual lions, it preserves habitat’ (Anon. 2015a). This was one of the relatively few attempts by the media to go beyond emotive and knee-jerk reactions to the killing.
The Telegraph also took a more measured approach on 1 August, as the initial outrage died down, when it reported an interview with Professor David Macdonald of WildCRU at Oxford University. He was quoted as saying that at times in the past Cecil had wandered into the hunting concession (which was part of his pride territory) when there were known to be hunters there. Macdonald went on to say that
I’m reluctant to say there was nothing special about Cecil. He was magnificent, but lots of lions are, and he is not the only lion to have left the park and get killed by any number of means. He is not the only one to have been killed illegally. After doing this for 20 years, we are hard to shock, adding I come from a culture which says innocent until proven guilty. If this man has been hoodwinked and now finds himself vilified because of the activities of people he hired, then anybody would have sympathy for him. However, if this was as illegal as alleged, then it is reprehensible and deplorable and the full force of the law should be brought to bear.The paper noted that he refused to condemn trophy hunting and said that in parts of Africa there was a very arguable case that strictly regulated lion hunting might be the best way for lions to survive (Shute 2015). In November 2016, Dr Macdonald published a very detailed examination written at the request of the British Minister of State for the Environment, Rory Stewart, which emphasised that in areas where hunting is well-regulated it can provide benefits for lion conservation as ‘it provides a financial incentive to maintain lion habitat that might otherwise be converted to non-wildlife uses’ and recommended that better regulation of hunting could maximize revenue and provide revenue for habitat protection and funding for conservation (Macdonald 2016). This received little media coverage when it was published, despite the clear link to the Cecil story.
On 1 August, The Telegraph highlighted an unverified (and as it turned out false) report by Rodrigues of ZCTF that Cecil’s co-pride male Jericho had now been killed. It said that the ZCTF had put out the following statement, ‘It is with huge disgust and sadness that we have just been informed that Jericho, Cecil’s brother has been killed at 4pm today’. This was the lead for the story despite the fact that further down in the report it is admitted that it could be another lion. It then quoted far more authoritative source, Andrew Loveridge, head of the WildCRU project in Zimbabwe. He said that Jericho had been seen alive and well. ‘We saw him yesterday and we have no indication that he has been shot since then’. The Mail’s website on the same day reported the Jericho story only to update a couple of hours later when it became clear that the ZCTF report was totally inaccurate.
One immediate effect of all the adverse press coverage of the hunt, Palmer, trophy hunters in general and Zimbabwe was that Zimbabwe announced on 1 August that it was suspending hunting in the area around Hwange – a suspension that was lifted just nine days later. But other effects were more lasting. The deluge of condemnations of trophy hunting led a series of airlines to ban the carrying of hunting trophies. Between August 2015 and August 2016, 32 airlines including British Airways, American Airlines and Delta banned the carrying of hunting trophies, while another seven banned trophies from the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) (Macdonald 2016: 14).
Despite the media furore and brief outbreak of public outrage, there was a rare comment by a British politician that did not jump on the grief bandwagon. The Minister of State for the Environment, Rory Stewart, was quoted by the Daily Telegraph on 5 August (and The Times on 6 August) as saying that hunting lions legally can help conservation. He condemned what he termed the ‘disgusting’ illegal killing of Cecil the lion, but went on to explain that it was ‘important for people to understand’ why hunting big game was legal in some African countries, where it was used to help raise money for conservation efforts. Mr Stewart declined to endorse calls from campaigners to ban hunters bringing big game ‘trophies’ such as animal heads or skins back to the United Kingdom.
By the end of the first week of August, the frenzy was diminishing and the number of stories dropping – though with occasional spikes, such as when the Sun, Sunday Mirror and The Telegraph website reported on 9 August that one of Cecil’s cubs had been killed by another lion. This was not backed up with any verification, and when I interviewed Brent Stapelkamp in May 2016, he told me that the pride was doing well and there had been no killing of cubs or takeover by other male. A minor outbreak of outrage was reported by the BBC, Mirror and other media on 26 August over the selling of a Halloween costume featuring a severed lion’s head mask, bloody smock and bloody gloves. Born Free felt this was an important enough event for it to garner publicity by condemning the costume as making a serious event into fantasy.
The story was now on its last legs. There were reports published in mid to late September 2015 when Ricky Gervais again condemned the killing and tennis star Andy Murray joined the chorus. But there was nothing new to report and coverage was petering out. Interestingly, once the furore had died down, the BBC ran a very balanced radio documentary on both Radio 4 and the World Service on the whole issue of Lion hunting, presented by Professor Adam Hart of The University of Gloucestershire (Hart 2015). Citing lion expert Craig Packer, Lynne McTavish, of the private Mankwe Wildlife Reserve in South Africa, Luke Hunter of the cat conservation group Panthera and specialists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Hart set out a strong argument for not having a blanket hunting ban and avoiding kneejerk reactions that would remove incentives to save habitats for wildlife that might otherwise be given over to marginal, low-productivity agriculture and lead to the depletion of wildlife, including lions.
It is clear from the figures of media and social media coverage and the language/story review that the killing of Cecil the lion ‘provoked an unprecedented media reaction’ (Macdonald et al. 2016: 4) and that this reaction lasted from the end of July to mid-August. The language of coverage was not a model of journalistic balance, impartiality or restraint, with superlatives and insults garnishing most reports. While there were attempts by newspapers and the BBC to address serious issues of conservation and the relationship with trophy hunting, the vast majority of coverage was concerned with emotive accounts of Cecil’s killing, accusatory pieces about the hunter and those who organized the hunt, and a wealth of inaccurate accounts exaggerating the more sensational the nature of the events. Misleading and unbalanced accounts were provided for readers/listeners/viewers failing to give an accurate account of exactly what happened, where and when.
The author is grateful to Professor David Macdonald, the director of WildCRU at the University of Oxford for the interview and giving constructive criticism of the original manuscript; to Brent Stapelkamp formerly of WildCRU for helping with the sequence of events and their consequences; to Johnny Rodriques of the ZCTF; and to Dr Bob Smith the director of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, Professor Adam Hart of the University of Gloucestershire and Dr Amy Dickman, research fellow at WildCRU, for reading and commenting on the paper.
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Somerville, K. (2017), ‘Cecil the lion in the British media: The pride and prejudice of the press’, Journal of African Media Studies, 9:3, pp. 471–85, doi: 10.1386/jams.9.3.471_1
Professor Keith Somerville, Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, member of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology, and senior research fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, UK. Contact: Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, Centre for Journalism, Gillingham Building, Chatham Maritime, Kent, ME4 4AG, UK. E-mail: email@example.com Keith Somerville has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that was submitted to Intellect Ltd.