The horrific killing of the magnificent, black-maned lion Cecil by an American trophy hunter in Zimbabwe highlights the little-known plight of his species. Lion populations are in free fall, and we are losing this iconic species in most of its range. Only two centuries ago, hundreds of thousands of lions inhabited Africa. Today there are perhaps 20,000 of the big cats, living in 8 percent of their former range.
Trophy hunting is legal in Zimbabwe-although Cecil's killing was a particularly repugnant case, in which many laws were apparently broken. Infuriating as trophy hunting may be, it is just one issue. Dozens of lions are killed each week by rural Africans in defense of their domestic cattle, goats, and camels. Many more cats die in wire snares and iron traps. Mostly laid to catch herbivores for the massive trade in wild bushmeat, illegal traps are a twofold blow for lions. Poaching devastates the wild prey that sustains lion populations. And drawn in by the distress calls of dying ungulates, lions are then captured in nearby snares themselves, where they die prolonged, ghastly deaths. As wildebeest, zebras, and antelope decline from poaching, lions resort to killing livestock, further fueling retaliatory killing by herders and ranchers.