The Ominous Death of Cecil the Lion

Copyright © 2015 Richard L. Currier


        The killing and beheading of Zimbabwe’s majestic and iconic adult lion by a trophy hunter from Minnesota in 2015 was more than just a thoughtless act of selfish vanity. It was a stark reminder of how modern technology has enabled humanity to utterly dominate all other forms of life—and an ominous example of how easy it has become for us to kill an animal much larger and more powerful than ourselves.

This is not to say that the hunting of wild animals is an unnatural activity for humans. In fact, the fabrication and use of lethal weapons by prehistoric apes may well have been the primary reason our ancestors evolved the unique ability to walk and run on two legs. After all, it is impossible to wield a lethal weapon while remaining on all fours.

The fossil record shows that by three million years ago, the earliest hominids had completely lost the long, sharp canine teeth that every species of ape and monkey uses to defend itself. This is not a coincidence. Our two-legged ancestors never faced their natural enemies with only their “bare hands.” If they had, our kind would have long since become extinct.

Moreover, humans and big cats have been natural enemies for millions of years. Australopithecus and other early hominids were killed and eaten by prehistoric leopards and cave lions millions of years ago, and African lions continue to prey on humans to this day. Humans and lions have been killing each other for a long, long time.

The Maasai—the indigenous cattle-herding nomads of the East African grasslands—were consummate lion-killers, and the Maasai warrior who killed a lion was celebrated as a hero. But the Maasai did not risk their lives to hunt lions simply for sport. The African lion was a deadly threat to the precious Zebu cattle that were the mainstay of the Maasai diet.

The Maasai hunter faced the lion armed with nothing but a simple spear. Luring his prey out into the open, he would harass his adversary with bells and rattles, deliberately arousing its anger, waiting until the enraged lion began to charge. Then, setting the butt of his spear into the ground and raising its point at the charging lion, the Maasai hunter would attempt to pierce the lion’s heart as it leaped to the attack. But if the spear missed its mark, the hunter rarely survived.

Ten thousand years ago, millions of lions roamed the earth, not only in Africa but throughout all of the Old World from Europe to Siberia. But with the appearance of agriculture and urban civilization, the lion was hunted to extinction in many of its original habitats. Yet even as recently as the early 1800s, more than a million lions still inhabited vast areas of Africa, India, and the Middle East. But during only the past two hundred years, 98% of the world’s lion population has been eliminated. Nevertheless, more than 800 lions continue to be killed by trophy hunters each year.

Some writers have complained that the killing of a wild animal is a trivial matter compared to the endless killings of human beings by each other or the appalling poverty in which millions of people still live. But such arguments miss the point. For all its ills, the world’s human population continues to multiply exponentially, while the world’s lion population dwindles toward extinction. The gradual disappearance of the African lion is only part of the on-going process in which humanity is now converting the entire earth’s surface into a vast production unit devoted entirely to the fulfillment of human needs.

Five mass extinctions have occurred in the earth’s geologic past, and in the most recent of these, the dinosaurs became extinct. After each mass extinction, it took more than five million years for the earth’s normal biodiversity to be restored. Five million years ago, our ancestors were prehistoric apes living in the trees. Five million years from now, our species will have long since evolved into—or been replaced by—another, possibly wiser, form of intelligent life.

The death of Cecil the Lion is not simply a story about one trophy hunter and one dead lion. It is a cautionary tale about the future of all the species that share the planet with us. Modern technology has made us the masters of the biosphere. We must now use this mastery with the wisdom, foresight, and compassion that defines us as human.