Our Burning Planet


A Tale of Two Cats, Cecil and Sylvester

A Tale of Two Cats, Cecil and Sylvester
An undated handout photo provided by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority on 28 July 2015 shows Cecil the lion. Photo: An undated handout photo provided by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority on 28 July 2015 shows Cecil

Wednesday, 1 July marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Cecil the Lion, the feline felled in Zimbabwe by a US bow hunter. And it is five years since a South African lion named Sylvester was recaptured in dramatic fashion after his escape from Karoo National Park. The tale of these cats is also a tale about wildlife policies, in this case, fencing, the option of choice in South Africa, the only industrialised economy which is home to the Big Five. And it highlights why affluent westerners may cry for lions, but local communities do not.


In winter, shivering temperatures often greet the dawn in South Africa’s Karoo. Sometimes frost covers the earth, a dappled ivory carpet that slowly recedes before the rising sun, revealing the starkness of the landscape: bare, flat-topped sandstone mountains tower above plains speckled with rock-strewn soil and improbable patches of vegetation — stunted clumps of bush in some places, grasslands in others. Aloes dot some of the hills, with crimson blossoms sprouting from gnarled stems. Acacia trees spiked with thorns take root in dry river-beds, trails of oasis-like green. But the general image is one of vast, open and mostly treeless terrain. A seemingly endless blue sky provides the canopy, transformed at night into a dazzling array of stars.

This central plateau of South Africa receives little rain, and in summer it can be baked by temperatures that soar above 40ºC. Yet it is hardly lifeless, with one of the planet’s richest natural histories. Today’s winter frosts were once permanent, the landlocked in the icy grip of glaciers. Around 270 million years ago, as the glaciers washed away with the shifting of the continents, living creatures invaded and evolution ran riot. Among the newcomers were protomammals, the ancestors of all mammals that walk the planet today, including Homo sapiens.

Fast forward to recent history, and the Karoo has continued to be home to an astonishing and flourishing assortment of life, carving intricate niches out of an environment that is not as unforgiving as it appears. The scattered vegetation that takes hold is rich in nutrients, providing sustenance to creatures big and small. Etched in stone, the rock engravings of the San Bushmen depict eland, rhino and elephant.

(The Karoo, photo by Daily Maverick)

The region’s faunal reputation really lay in its teeming masses of springbok, the dainty tan and white antelope that is the symbol of South Africa’s national rugby team. The springbok Karoo migrations were legendary, evoking the countless procession of bison that once defined the American hinterland and the wildebeest passage across the Serengeti. The last mass-migration reported was in 1896, but the guns of South Africa’s white settlers had reduced the numbers greatly, along with fencing for livestock, bringing one of nature’s grand spectacles to an end.

(The Karoo, photo by Daily Maverick)

Yet in their day, this zoological phenomenon highlighted the ability of wildlife to thrive in this thirsty land. In 1849, the small Karoo town of Beaufort West was overwhelmed for three days by a heaving mass of springbok, which may have numbered millions, on the move. Utter desolation was left in its wake: the surrounding foliage, never abundant in this harsh corner of Africa, had been completely stripped, the Karoo’s vulnerability laid more bare than the melting of frost before an ascending sun. 

The springbok horde that descended on Beaufort West, more pulverising than its hulking human namesakes on the rugby pitch, would have been followed by an array of predators and scavengers, including leopard, hyena, and jackal. But in 1849, the springbok would not have been shadowed by lion. The last wild lion recorded in the region was shot at the nearby settlement of Leeu-Gamka in 1842. Ironically, Leeu and Gamka, the names of rivers in the area, are derived respectively from words for lion used in Afrikaans and San. Decades before the mesmerising springbok migration was brought to a halt in the Karoo, one of the species’ key adversaries had been completely eradicated from the territory. Sparsely populated by humans to this day, much of the Karoo had been effectively “dewilded” by the middle of the 19th century.

So it came as a stunning jolt on a chilly June morning in 2015 when Kobus Swanepoel, a Karoo farm manager and hunting guide, found a fresh lion track in a dry riverbed on the ranch he was then renting. Swanepoel, who was 33 at the time, knew lion spoor when he saw it. A seasoned outdoorsman and accomplished hunter, he had spent several years in the bushveld of South Africa’s northern Limpopo province, a wild region where the big cats occasionally crossed over from neighbouring Botswana, or escaped from large fenced reserves. A lion’s impression in the soil is pretty unmistakable, the egg-shaped marks of its four toes protruding from a rounded imprint resembling a misshapen pumpkin.

“As I came down the road, I saw the track,” Swanepoel told me two years later, pointing to the riverbed as he geared down his diesel pick-up truck. Clambering out as the truck came to a juddering halt, Swanepoel walked to a spot where the dirt road rose out of the bed, a jumble of rocks, boulders and river sand fringed by acacia. Fresh spoor of a different kind was visible there now, one of a horse, the other from a kudu. The soil was thin, and it was hard to imagine anything leaving evidence of its passage. But my wife and I had run along a parallel dirt road earlier that day, and I had noticed the tracks we left. And a horse, kudu and lion are all big — the cat in this case being a three-year-old male, not yet fully grown but still tipping the scales at a good 140 kg.

“I reckoned it was a big female or a male not fully grown,” Swanepoel told me. 

Swanepoel knew immediately where this feline had originated — 3km away lay the fenced boundary of the Karoo National Park, where lions had been reintroduced in 2010 after an absence from the region of almost 170 years. This followed a long tradition in South African conservation of returning alpha animals to their previous ranges and habitats, an important precursor to the current “rewilding movement”. This lion, it would transpire, had been born in the park in 2012 — and its birth, the first in the park since the big cats’ reintroduction, marked another modern Karoo feline milestone. But the life of a male lion is rough, and read in tooth and claw. At a certain age, it will be driven from the pride, and bigger, more dominant males will not tolerate its presence. At 768  square kilometres, the park is not exactly small, but lions require a lot of space. And big animals in the park are contained by sturdy fencing — or, at least, they are supposed to be contained.

This lion — which acquired the moniker “Sylvester” — had been in a life-and-death struggle with a coalition of older male lions that were harassing him. A few days before his breakout, there had been unusually heavy rains for that time of the year, and a channel of water had forged a gully and raised part of the fence. Sylvester snatched the opportunity to escape his tormenters.

Swanepoel was unaware at the time of this chain of events — he just knew there was a lion on the loose on the farm where he and his family were residing, and that could spell big trouble. The farmworkers in the vicinity, many of whom would have been outside on foot or riding with donkey-pulled carts — still a common mode of transport for the rural poor in these parts in the 21st century — were vulnerable. Livestock was another concern: the region is famed for its sheep. And then there was the matter of the school and boarding house, which lay barely 3km from the lion’s track. It was 8am and about 40 primary-aged children, including Swanepoel’s two sons, were just starting their school day. And when Swanepoel began tracking the cat through the riverbed, it was headed straight for the school.

 “He stayed in the riverbed so it was pretty easy to follow,” Swanepoel told me. He drove on the road parallel to the riverbed, jumping out every couple of hundred metres to run down to it and check on the cat’s direction. I asked if moving through the dense foliage of the acacia was unnerving.

“You don’t want to encounter a cat in there,” he said matter-of-factly. Swanepoel was probably putting his faith in the hands of his God. During the course of our conversations, it emerged that he was a devout Christian.

And whether or not it was divine intervention, Sylvester’s spoor revealed that the children had had a close call. The boarding house was a drab green dwelling, surrounded at least by a high wire fence. On the day I visited, a Saturday, around a dozen of the boarders, mostly children, were playing, watched over by a matronly middle-aged woman. One could only imagine the horror that would have ensued had a lion suddenly materialised there. The school, just a stone’s throw away, consisted of a pair of modest, prefabricated units, and only had a short wire fence around its small yard. Neither fence would have presented much of an obstacle to a hungry lion. And Sylvester’s prints had come within 200 metres of the boarding house and school. But he had then abruptly turned tail and headed away on a route that would take him into the surrounding hills — a group of chattering kids can attract a predator, or startle it.

“He probably heard the children waking and the noise so he turned from the boarding house, he turned around on his tracks and he changed direction north-east and went over the mountain,” Swanepoel said.

Swanepoel alerted the park authorities, and at first they doubted his story. “So I said they should send me trackers, which they did. So I showed them the tracks and they said ‘yes, it’s a lion’ and we took it from there.” The trackers they sent were San, historically a much-abused people whose communities have mostly abandoned their traditional, hunter-gatherer way of life. But those who retain their ancestors’ traditions, or at least some of them, are renowned for their uncanny ability to track game, a rare skill that draws on generations of intricate knowledge of the wildlife that once represented their means of survival.

Yet Sylvester remained ahead of the growing throng, which was confounded on two fronts: one being the harsh setting of the Karoo, where the big cat often melted into hillside crevices. The other was the conflicting clock patterns of the pursued and the pursuers: lions are nocturnal and mostly move at night. Human trackers by contrast can only work effectively when the sun is in the sky.

The trackers were armed and Swanepoel fetched his .375, a heavy-calibre rifle, also used for elephant hunting, that is known for its “stopping power” — meaning it can stop big, charging beasts in their tracks. The trio then set out for an arduous day of tracking that would take them up an imposing hillside and over a treacherous trail just beneath a sheer, rocky ridge along the top. Gazing up at it, I could see it had been no easy hike.

Swanepoel, a compact man with a salt-and-pepper beard and open manner, cuts a ruggedly fit figure in the way of people who spend their lives outdoors. Clad in an olive-green shirt and trousers, with a checkered bandana around his neck, he had been guiding kudu hunters earlier in the day and was showing me highlights of the Sylvester trail on a late afternoon. He certainly looked like he could easily track an animal through such rough territory, but in the photos he showed me from that day I almost failed to recognise him, his face and frame both being far rounder.

“I was fat then,” he told me with a laugh. “It was tough following Sylvester.”

Sylvester would prove elusive on that day, and for many to follow. Swanepoel and his fellow trackers caught one heart-stopping glimpse of the cat, about 20 metres ahead in a thicket, as a helicopter that had been deployed in the search thumped overhead. But they had no direct contact with the pilot, and the chase continued. In one spot they saw that the cat had attempted to bring down a warthog, but failed to do so. Expert trackers can discern the drama of the bush by reading signs on the ground that would be meaningless to almost anyone else. In places where the soil was scant, the trackers would detect the faintest nick of a claw on a rock, and know they were still hot on the trail. But darkness fell and the trail would cool off.

Swanepoel helped with the search for three days, but eventually had to get back to his responsibilities. But the hunt for Sylvester, who embarked on a sheep-killing spree, would grow feverish. A spokesman for South African National Parks (SANParks) told me that the posse eventually included several police units, conservation officials from two provinces, four veterinarians, a dog-handler from Botswana with two helpers and six dogs, and several trackers and volunteers from the local farming community. For aerial support, SANParks dispatched a helicopter and a local aviation training school provided a gyrocopter and microlight.

Yet Sylvester remained ahead of the growing throng, which was confounded on two fronts: one being the harsh setting of the Karoo, where the big cat often melted into hillside crevices. The other was the conflicting clock patterns of the pursued and the pursuers: lions are nocturnal and mostly move at night. Human trackers by contrast can only work effectively when the sun is in the sky.

“In daytime, lions try to lay low,” Swanepoel told me. “And Sylvester was foreign in this area and he wasn’t secure and he was trying to get away as far as possible from the other male lions. So you start tracking early, with the first light in the morning, and sometimes you lose the track. But let’s say you track 15 to 20km maximum per day, that’s about how much he walked last night. So he might be 5km from you or more when it gets dark. And then he is moving again.”

Meanwhile, Sylvester was leaving a mounting body count of livestock in his wake. The final toll, by the reckoning of SANParks, was 28 dead sheep, plus a kudu. The worst incident came on day three of his flight for freedom, when he slaughtered 16 sheep at once. Raised in a national park where he freely hunted a range of wild game, Sylvester had never come across such easy prey before. One shudders to think what may have transpired if he had travelled that extra 200m on that first morning to a playground bustling with school children.

The children at the farm school where Sylvester the Lion twice came within 200 metres of. (Photo by Christa Cameron)

Finally, on 29 June, Sylvester was pinned down on the craggy ridge of a mountain a mile above sea level and darted with a tranquilliser from a helicopter in a hair-raising operation that left no room for error. He had been on the lam for 24 days. During that time, he had covered about 300km in total, though the mountain where the dart knocked him out was not far from the park as the crow flies.

“(Sylvester) had to be loaded into a sling underneath the chopper while lying immobilised on the mountainside. This was the most dangerous part of the operation as the helicopter blades were not more than two metres from the mountain edge,” SANParks said in a statement. I wrote a brief story for Reuters, the news agency I worked for at the time, about the escapade, and an editor in London came up with a light-hearted headline: “Sylvester the lion’s big adventure ends with a helicopter ride in South African mountains.” Sylvester’s tale quickly faded from the news cycle. But a new story involving a lion with a human name was about to erupt. And the world had not heard the last of Sylvester.


Shortly after Sylvester’s recapture, another male lion, 2,000km to the north in neighbouring Zimbabwe, also left the protective confines of his reserve. He was not fleeing the aggression of other male lions, however, and there was no fence standing in his way. Simply by crossing a railway track he was no longer in a protected area. This particular lion presided over a pride in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Much was known about this big cat’s life because he was the subject of a study by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WCRU), which was gathering data in a bid to understand the threats faced by lions. In 2008, when he was aged about six, he was tranquillised and fitted with a satellite-tracking radio collar. It would emit signals every two hours, providing his GPS co-ordinates. He was also a favourite with tourists who visited the park.

His data code was MAGM1, but he was better-known by his English nickname, Cecil.

On 1 July 2015, Theo Bronkhorst, a Zimbabwean professional hunting guide, came upon an elephant carcass while guiding an American dentist named Walter Palmer on a farm adjacent to Hwange. They decided to use it for bait, which is the typical way predators are hunted — you don’t stalk a stalker. According to Bronkhorst, a blind was built and the hunting party settled in for a night of waiting.

Around 10pm, a lioness floated past the blind. Then Cecil strode into view.

“He was a magnificent animal,” Bronkhorst would later tell the British newspaper The Telegraph. Indeed he was. At 13 years old, Cecil was a huge specimen, an apex predator at the pinnacle of the food chain, his massive head framed by an impressive black and tan mane. He had literally clawed his way to the top, spurred by an ancient call, but with his movements meticulously tracked by 21st-century GPS technology. Cecil had been grievously wounded in a previous battle in which his brother had been killed, but had soldiered on, taking the helm of one pride, then being beaten off, only to form another.

This was what Palmer had been waiting for — a trophy. He proceeded to shoot his quarry with a bow, but the shot was bad.

Tracking a wounded lion at night is not advisable, so the party turned in for the night and began their search in the light of the following day. The details remain sketchy, but what we know is that Cecil was eventually found about 250m from where he was wounded, and was “dispatched”. Oxford scientists say he was killed about 11 hours after the initial arrow was shot. That was when Bronkhorst and Palmer discovered his radio collar, and realised that they had slain a protected animal.

Initial media reports also asserted that Cecil had been “lured” out of the park by the bait, which WCRU researchers have said was not true — Cecil was already out of the park when the party found the dead elephant. Questions have also been raised about the fate of the radio collar, and Palmer’s knowledge of the hunt’s legality, which was the crux of the matter from a legal point of view — there was no “quota” for a lion in the area. But the overall story is pretty clear: an American dentist from Minnesota, a hunting enthusiast with deep pockets willing to pay big bucks to bag big game, had killed a lion in Zimbabwe with a bow and arrow — one of many such kills.

According to WCRU, Cecil was one of 65 lions killed by trophy hunters in the area from 1999 to 2015, 45 of which were equipped with radio collars. Indeed, two other satellite-collared lions with human nicknames were also killed by hunters in the same area in 2015. But Cecil was popular with park officials and tourists who visited Hwange. And Zimbabwean officials began an investigation into the matter.

The story of Cecil’s demise slowly leaked out that July, and really took off on 27 July, when Palmer was named as Cecil’s killer. It received an added jolt on 28 July, when US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel took to the airwaves and made an impassioned statement about the incident, choking back tears as he assured Africans that “not all Americans are like this jackhole” — the jackhole in question being Palmer of course, whose practice was already being besieged by protesters. Kimmel also made reference to WCRU’s work and encouraged his viewers to support it by visiting its website. In the following hour, an estimated 4.4 million people did just that, overwhelming its website and Oxford University’s, triggering their collapse.

Cecil’s story rumbled on, with huge media coverage of its various twists and turns, including Bronkhorst’s court appearances and the decision by Zimbabwean authorities not to charge Palmer — a man who deserved no less than hanging, according to some social media posts. Zimbabwe would also finally decide in November of 2016 not to proceed with the case against Bronkhorst.

Cecil, in the meantime, became a secular martyr to a number of conservation causes held dear by many in the affluent West, and in April 2016 was named by Time magazine as “The Most Influential Animal in the World”. Money for conservation causes have been raised in his name and there is even a “Cecil the Lion Tribute Page” featuring portraits of the late cat. In a subsequent paper, Oxford researchers measured the media coverage of the Cecil saga, which peaked at 12,000 stories a day in editorial media; social media topped out at 87,533 “mentions”. The authors of the paper asked if Cecil would be a passing “moment” or a “movement”, making the plausible argument that his death triggered the largest reaction to an event “in the history of wildlife conservation”.


The response from Africa was pointedly different.

Asked by reporters for comment on the Cecil episode, Zimbabwe’s acting information minister at the time, Prisca Mupfumira, snapped: “What lion?”

In response to demand from rural villages, Zambia had quietly reopened its lion hunting season in May 2015 after a two-year closure. Tourism Minister Jean Kapata, speaking to Reuters in Lusaka about the issue in the wake of the Cecil uproar, said a community leader in her home area had recently been eaten by a lion — driving home a point often missed by Western commentators. 

A few days after Kimmel’s emotional outburst, Goodwell Nzou, a Zimbabwean doctoral student studying molecular medicine in the United States, penned an opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “In Zimbabwe, We Don’t Cry for Lions”. He wrote that the American outrage over the incident had provoked “the starkest cultural contradiction I’d experienced during my five years studying in the United States”.

“Did all those Americans signing petitions understand that lions actually kill people? That all the talk about Cecil being “beloved” or a “local favorite” was media hype? Did Jimmy Kimmel choke up because Cecil was murdered or because he confused him with Simba from The Lion King,” Nzou asked.

Hollywood offers another striking, and far more realistic take, on our relationship with big cats. In Martin Scorsese’s classic 1979 Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, there is a wildly unexpected scene that begins with a hunt for mangos in the rainforest.

The character called “Chef” sets off to search for the fruit to add to a sparse larder on board his military gunboat, which is making its way up the river to an unknown destination. He is accompanied by Green Beret Captain Benjamin Willard, played by Martin Sheen. The dark greens of the jungle and monstrous trees give the setting an almost prehistoric feel — and the threat that lurks is indeed prehistoric. As Chef babbles on about the unappetising side of industrial-scale cooking, Willard is alerted to potential danger by birds crying out in alarm. The pair, now in combat-ready mode, quietly move forward through the shadows, massive leaves speckled by sunlight eerily shrouding their path. Assault rifles at the ready, the men stop metres in front of a dark thicket. From within the bush, a figure appears, and then jarringly comes into focus: a roaring tiger charges from the bush! 

The tiger is only on the screen for a split second — Williard fires several rounds and then flees, following a traumatised chef who discharges some wild shots while screaming “A fucking tiger! A fucking tiger!” Back on the boat, Chef completely loses it — this is his PTSD moment, the one where this crazy war has finally pushed him over the edge. This is a man who over the course of the movie has seen a mad Lieutenant Colonel — memorably played by Robert Duval — launch a military assault on a beach because there is good surfing to be had in its waves.

While undertaking this operation with helicopter gunships, the Lieutenant Colonel has Wagner’s stirring The Ride of the Valkyries blared loudly from a chopper. Civilians including women and children are massacred, all because some crazed officer wants to surf. Chef is tightly wound and some of the events appear to unsettle him — but his shipmates, who have all had to catch a military escort with the madman, are also bug-eyed at times. The Duval character also famously proclaims his love for the “smell of napalm in the morning…” The Lieutenant Colonel is completely unhinged. But ultimately Chef and the rest of his crew seem relatively unfazed by these events — they are on a clear path of mental instability, but have not yet strayed off it to the lip of the cliff.

At the end of the fucking day, Chef just wants to cook.

But coming face to face with a big cat that wanted to eat him was a line he could not cross. It was incomprehensible in its horror. Of all the shocking incidents he witnessed and experienced, this was the one that shocked him to the core, triggering a meltdown.

“I don’t fucking need it, I don’t want it! … All I want to do is fucking cook!” he wails on the boat as he rips his shirt off and has a tearful breakdown. Manically, he says “Bye tiger! Bye tiger!”, as the boat speeds away.

Chef, played by Frederick Forrest, said something else after he scrambled to the embrace of his gunboat. “Never get out of the boat!” he screams. “Never get out of the boat!”

When it comes to megafauna, we instinctively erect barriers — in this case the water. 

There was no barrier to Cecil’s movements, nor was there one for the cat that terrorised Nzou’s village. And the stark terror that plunged Chef into the abyss — the kind that comes in the form of a large, man-eating cat — was what stalked Nzou’s village.

“When I was nine years old, a solitary lion prowled villages near my home. After it killed a few chickens, some goats and finally a cow, we were warned to walk to school in groups and stop playing outside. My sisters no longer went alone to the river to collect water or wash dishes; my mother waited for my father and older brothers, armed with machetes, axes and spears, to escort her into the bush to collect firewood. A week later, my mother gathered me with nine of my siblings to explain that her uncle had been attacked but escaped with nothing more than an injured leg. The lion sucked the life out of the village: No one socialised by fires at night; no one dared stroll over to a neighbour’s homestead.”

From the local community’s perspective, Kimmel was shedding crocodile tears. Indeed, Western campaigns over the plight of big animals on a continent with such pressing social concerns can seem downright callous to Africans, who, to paraphrase a US political slogan that has been brought into sharp relief by the killing of George Floyd, would say “Black Lives Matter More than Animal Lives.”

If you think this is misplaced, consider this: 22,000 rural Africans slaughtered for political reasons by one of the continent’s vile regimes. That should surely provoke more outrage than the killing of one lion by an American dentist. Such an atrocity — the “Matabeleland Massacre”, perpetuated in the 1980s by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwean army under the command of the now late autocrat Robert Mugabe — actually took place not far from the area where Cecil met his end. Yet this crime against humanity was barely noticed at the time, or since, by the wider public in the West.

Admittedly, it took place decades before the rise of the internet and the web-based social media revolution. But even today, monstrous crimes in Africa have not elicited a response from the Western public to match the reaction triggered by Cecil’s killing. Perhaps we simply see incidents such as the Matabeleland Massacre or the Darfur conflict as the natural order of things in Africa. As the late cultural critic Susan Sontag noted in her book Regarding the Pain of Others:

“Postcolonial Africa exists in the consciousness of the general public in the rich world — besides through its sexy music — mainly as a succession of unforgettable photographs of large-eyed victims… They confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish the belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward — that is, poor — parts of the world.”

Or consider this: it has been almost five years since Cecil was killed. In that time, at least hundreds of rural Africans have been killed or maimed by dangerous wildlife. I have attempted to collect data on the issue and it is patchy to say the least, but hundreds is not an unreasonable estimate and it may well exceed that. Many of these victims will be women and children. But aside from their family, friends and neighbours, who knows their names? Where is the public outcry over their fate? What American late-night talk show hosts are shedding tears for them?

It seems little has changed since 1907, when British engineer John Henry Patterson’s The Man-Eaters of Tsavo was published. The subject of three movies, the book is a gripping account of Patterson’s efforts to hunt down a pair of lions that terrorised the work crews building a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya in 1898.

“Well had the man-eaters earned (their)… fame,” Patterson wrote. “They had devoured between them no less than 28 Indians” … “in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives of whom no official record was kept.” The African victims were nameless and not even worth counting. They remain so in the 21st century.

In his New York Times Op-Ed, Nzou noted:

“We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.” Why indeed?


Many conservationists would take offence at the allegation that they were more concerned about animals than Africans, and the taint of racism such an assertion implies. I have interviewed scores of conservationists over the course of my career as a journalist, and the impression that emerges is one of an activism that draws on well-intentioned desires to make our planet a better place — for people, animals and the wider environment.

It is an activism that can certainly be emotive — and at times exploitative — but one that is often (though not always) grounded firmly in science while seeking to advance our knowledge of the natural world. It also draws heavily on the Enlightenment and the West’s historical intellectual and cultural heritage: the growing realisation in the 17th and 18th centuries that animals could feel pain; the Darwinian revolution, which highlighted our biological kinship to the wider animal world; the related discovery that species could go extinct, and the gradual dawning that our actions could be a cause; and our unmooring from the natural world, brought about by the twin forces of urbanisation and industrialisation, which in turn gave rise to our penchant for romanticising it.

The answer is straightforward, but its history is deep and complex. South Africa under apartheid was the only industrialised nation in history that had big, dangerous African wildlife living within its borders and ranging over its territory. Its solution, a political one that responded to the affluent, white community that had the vote, was to contain the beasts in fenced-off, protected areas.

There was also an ugly undercurrent to the Cecil drama which was mostly submerged from the public view. Nzou told me in an interview by phone that he had received death threats after his letter was published: death threats directed at a young man who was disabled, with the lower part of his right leg amputated because of a snake bite he suffered as a child.

“There were threats by email, on Facebook, and a letter to the university saying that I did not deserve to be alive because what the world needed more of is animals, not people,” he told me. Someone said his mother should die because she was having too many children — an unsubtle message. Nzou understandably did not want to reveal the university in the United States where he was completing his PHD.

And it did not stop there.

In the wake of the Cecil circus, South Africa’s Environment Minister at the time, Edna Molewa, was subjected to a torrent of racist abuse on Twitter because her ministry and the ANC government supported the hunting industry. Molewa, who died in late 2018, was a black, middle-aged woman whom I always found to be cheerful and approachable, with a firm grasp of policy — something that could not be said about all of her colleagues.

At some point in 2016 she had signed off from Twitter, and a member of her staff told me about the hounding she had received from anonymous trolls — trolls who hurled racist insults at her.

“They called her a black bitch and worse, and said she was responsible for killing innocent animals,” said her staff member. Eventually, I asked Molewa about it on the sidelines of a World Economic Forum conference in Durban, and she was still visibly upset.

“It was terrible. And these cowards don’t show themselves,” she told me. That’s how racist and misogynist trolls work, as several contributors to this publication know.

These incidents were not isolated, and indeed follow a racist pattern that has often defined conservation movements and personalities in Africa. One famous example is Joy Adamson, who shot to worldwide fame for her 1960 book Born Free, which detailed how she raised a lioness in Kenya before releasing it back to the wild — another precursor to the rewilding campaigns that have become popular today. Adamson, as the commentator George Monbiot and others have noted, was in reality a vicious and unpleasant racist, a character trait that played no part in the radiant portrayal of her in the Oscar-winning film based on the book.

She so grievously mistreated her black staff that it came as no surprise that a former servant murdered her. To Adamson, African people were subhumans who stood in the way of her own conservation initiatives, their lives clearly mattering less than those of animals. At one point, she demanded that colonial authorities in Kenya give her 30,000ha of land that belonged to Africans so that her beloved big cats could roam there. To her, that may not have seemed unreasonable: many conservation areas in Africa have involved the forced removal of the local communities to make way for animals.

The great English historian Keith Thomas, commenting on a fashion among some historians in the 1980s to view the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century as a diversion of activist energies from the plight of the English working class, noted that the same could be said of the movement against animal cruelty at that time:

“It too buttressed the new industrial system by representing inhumanity to beasts as something that belonged to more uncivilised regimes in the past …”

Late 19th-century campaigns against cruelty to women and children, aimed almost exclusively at working-class households and neighbourhoods, were often outgrowths of the SPCA — the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Concern for animal welfare, it seems, at times preceded empathy for the miseries of poor humans.

There are echoes of these trends today. In South Africa, for example, campaigns against rhino poaching or animal cruelty are almost always led by members of the white middle class: a diversion of energy from what most Africans would see as the more vital issues of poverty, AIDS and a host of other social and economic ills, which the Covid-19 pandemic has made even more pressing.

In the novel Inheriting the Earth, the South African writer Jill Nudelman vividly captures this conflict of cultures. In a hectoring tone, a white woman who runs her own small NGO admonishes a poor, rural black man for mistreating his donkey — his one source of income that hauls the firewood which he sells.

“Why is he so thin? You don’t feed him enough. You must feed your donkey,” she says. To which an onlooker responds: “What must we do? He’s a poor man. We’re all poor men. We can’t take food away from the people to give to our animals.” The scene is fictional, but it is a slice of South African reality, where many affluent whites, to paraphrase Thomas, regard inhumanity to beasts as a relic of an uncivilised past — in short, a barbaric flaw of the black majority that needs to be rectified.

The wider world of writing also provides a more telling example of this cultural divide. African wildlife in recent decades has been the subject of literally hundreds of books. Dozens stand on one of the bookshelves in my house. Every single one has been written by a white author, often a foreigner to the continent, like myself.

One exception is the recently published Changing a Leopard’s Spots, an engaging book co-authored by wildlife trackers Alex van den Heever and Renias Mhlongo. In the African literary canon, fauna figures prominently in oral traditions, such as “trickster tales”, where animals are stand-ins for humans in fables where the weak often outwit the strong — a storytelling heritage carried on by slaves in the Americas, where such scenarios had an obvious appeal. But in the late 20th and 21st centuries, current African wildlife issues are mostly the concern of middle-class, white South Africans and their counterparts elsewhere. They are not a significant African concern, at least in the realm of writing. That, surely, is an indication of where priorities lie.


One useful point of departure — or a way to find some common ground on such issues — lies in a largely ignored detail about the twin tales of Cecil and Sylvester. This simple fact escaped most of the commentary, but its consequences are profound.

Sylvester’s park in South Africa was enclosed by a fence: Cecil’s wasn’t. Sylvester set off a massive cat hunt because he slipped past the boundary. That was not an issue with Cecil, who periodically left his park. So do many other lions, making them a threat to rural communities. Yet this is a seemingly tolerable situation in Zimbabwe, whereas in South Africa it is regarded as intolerable. Why is this the case?

The answer is straightforward, but its history is deep and complex. South Africa under apartheid was the only industrialised nation in history that had big, dangerous African wildlife living within its borders and ranging over its territory. Its solution, a political one that responded to the affluent, white community that had the vote, was to contain the beasts in fenced-off, protected areas.

The Cecil moment had indeed become a movement, one that perhaps paid no small part in saving Sylvester. SANParks eventually ceded to the public outcry and another home was found for Sylvester in the Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, a larger park where he was less likely to come into mortal combat with other males. SANParks says as of June 2020, he remains a contented resident there.

This includes the famed Kruger National Park, which is the size of Israel, and also has capital-intensive agriculture such as sugar cane and other crops along its border. As a conservation strategy, this is hugely expensive. But the broader point here is that middle-class, affluent and industrialised economies will simply not tolerate in their midst the threatening presence of African megafauna. And it is a conservation tool that has been kept in place by the ANC government which took power in South Africa in 1994. It is here that we begin to find common ground between Africans and non-Africans on the issue of the big animals that pose a potential danger to humans. It is our common human desire to avoid encountering such wildlife in situations where they can threaten us.

“Never get off the boat!” — that is our instinct. But instead of seeking shelter on the water, we create islands — islands of habitat, for that is precisely what fenced reserves are. This has ecological consequences that are still playing themselves out. But conservation science is also coming out in defence of the fence. And human-wildlife conflict, or HWC, has always defined, and been defined, by boundaries — in this case, literally between us and them. 

I spoke by telephone to Craig Packer, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota, about this issue. He is widely regarded as the world’s foremost expert on lions.

“Africa can be divided into two broad categories: places that get lots of rain and arid regions. In agricultural areas there is no question that fencing is the best solution because people are then okay with wildlife because it is on the other side of the fences and not threatening their crops,” he said.

“In arid areas things are more complex and fencing needs to be more strategic, around hot spots of human activity.” Among other things, this is because wildlife needs access to migration routes to water when things are really dry.

Packer and other scientists are completing a paper looking at this very issue across the continent to identify where fencing is appropriate. While not as extensive as South Africa, fencing to contain and protect dangerous wildlife is now being used in at least seven African countries. It must be said that funding such initiatives will not be easy in the immediate aftermath of the global economic meltdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Raising fences raises people above what I have dubbed elsewhere the “faunal poverty line”. It raises the dignity of people who live on the other side of the fence, enabling them to go about their daily routines without facing the prehistoric threat posed by megafauna while providing a measure of protection to the animals within. It is not a perfect solution: rhinos and elephants are poached in the Kruger, and Sylvester is hardly the only lion to have gone under a South African fence in recent years. But it is the best one we have. When big critters are about, we prefer to stay on the boat. 


The story wasn’t over for Sylvester — he made headlines again, in March 2016, when he broke out of the Karoo National Park a second time. But this time round, he was wearing a satellite collar like Cecil’s, making him far easier to pursue. After three days, he was darted again. Now regarded as a “problem animal”, park officials announced he would be put down. Coming in the wake of the Cecil fiasco, this sparked a hue and cry among (mostly white) South Africans, who started online petitions calling for SANParks to spare him.

The Cecil moment had indeed become a movement, one that perhaps paid no small part in saving Sylvester. SANParks eventually ceded to the public outcry and another home was found for Sylvester in the Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, a larger park where he was less likely to come into mortal combat with other males. SANParks says as of June 2020, he remains a contented resident there.

One of the many petitions said:

“Sylvester the lion will be put down once captured. This beautiful animal has not killed a single human.” It also quoted a parks official as saying: “The likelihood of him encountering a human being is slim.” Why then, the outraged author asked, should he be put down?

Yet Sylvester’s likelihood of encountering a human was not actually so slender — which explained the urgency behind the operation to recapture him. The petitioners were unaware of the trail that Sylvester took, one that gave Swanepoel an unnerving sense of déjà vu.

On the day he was showing me around, he casually mentioned that Sylvester on his second breakout had initially followed the precise route he had taken before.

“He came down into the same spot in the river bed and once again, his spoor showed that he had come about 200 metres from the school before he turned,” Swanepoel told me. The children had once again had a close shave.

Elsewhere in Africa, children are not so fortunate. OBP/DM

Absa OBP

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