No other wildlife story in 2015 touched a bigger nerve or gained as much worldwide attention as the one about a Minnesota dentist killing Cecil the lion, a popular and beloved lion from Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
The lion was alleged to have been lured out of the protected reserve with an animal carcass tied to the bumper of a vehicle belonging to the hunting party.
Cecil the lion, who was wearing a GPS collar around its neck, was shot with a bow and finished off 40 hours later with a gun.
The hunter was identified as Walter James Palmer, who was vilified over social media. He received threats, temporarily shut down his dental practice and faced worldwide protests.
Palmer denied any wrongdoing and said the professional guides "secured all the proper permits. To my knowledge, everything about this trip was legal and properly handled and conducted."
Local authorities in Zimbabwe did not charge Palmer but arrested hunting guide Theo Bronkhorst and Honest Ndlovu, the owner of the farm on which the hunt took place. Bronkhorst was charged with breaching hunting rules and Ndlovu for allowing an illegal hunt.
The trial of Bronkhorst was to begin Nov. 23 but didn't. The defense appealed to a High Court to dismiss the case, and the trial cannot begin until the High Court rules. Apparently it has yet to do so.
Meanwhile, happier news awaits in 2016. Cecil the lion's son, Xanda, was spotted mating, and Cecil's grandcubs are expected in March, according to The Guardian.
While news of Cecil the lion took center stage, these other wildlife stories in 2015 were worthy sideshows:
Biggest great white shark ever filmed
Seals riding on the backs of whales:
Deep Blue, a massive great white shark measuring over 20 feet and believed to be about 50 years old, was captured in video approaching a shark cage full of wide-eyed divers at Guadalupe Island in Mexico.
The biggest great white shark ever filmed dwarfed the divers and the cage, which it bumped into. Originally filmed in 2013, researcher Mauricio Hoyos Padilla discovered more unpublished clips of the behemoth great white and posted it on Facebook where it surpassed 8 million views.
Amazingly, the sight of a seal hitching a ride on the back of a whale happened not once but twice.
In September, Robyn Malcolm was on a whale-watching trip out of Eden in New South Wales, Australia, when she snapped several photos of a feeding frenzy involving humpback whales. The action was fast and furious, so she didn't realize the photo she had captured until looking at them later.
There, perched atop the whale, was a seal.
Then in November, we got a sequel.
Whale of a Time, a website that shares amazing wildlife footage on trips down the Baja California Peninsula, posted video from a whale-watching trip that showed the same thing. A seal riding a gray whale.
The explanation? Geoff Ross, coordinator for NSW national parks and wildlife service, said this coupling was highly uncommon and that the seal was probably trying to steal food.
Family catches mountain lion in a fox trap
A father was attempting to teach his two boys a little something about trapping, hoping he could catch and then release a fox near their home west of Rapid City, South Dakota. But Dan Casey got far more than he bargained for when he discovered a mountain lion in the trap.
With his wife and sons looking on from the safety of a pickup, Casey carefully opened the trap to release the very "unhappy" cougar.
"My heart jumped a little bit," Casey told the Rapid City Journal. "I wasn't really worried about getting mauled, but it definitely made me realize again that this was a wild animal."
Bighorn sheep defies gravity on sheer cliff face
A photo of a bighorn sheep seemingly defying gravity on a sheer cliff face was hard for some to swallow. So many questioned the authenticity of the photo posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that it was forced to post a series of others to verify that Photoshop had nothing to do with the first photo.
"Some of you (who will remain nameless) have questioned the authenticity of our very awesome, gravity-defying bighorn sheep photo," the USFWS Mountain-Prairie Region wrote on Facebook. “So, we are providing, to eliminate all doubt, the series of photos that shows the nimble critter navigating the cliffs of the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming."
It was legitimate and the photos helped convince some of the doubters.
"Yeah I did too doubt it," one wrote. "Was hard to believe an animal with hooves could do such a thing without slipping off. I thought the photo was tilted to one side in order to make it look more dramatic."
Siberian tiger befriends goat it was given to eat
At feeding time, a live goat was put into the enclosure of Amur the tiger at the Primorsky Safari Park in Russia, but instead of eating the goat, the tiger became friends with it.
Timur the goat and Amur the Siberian tiger are now fast friends, and Timur is no longer getting a diet of live goats, out of respect for Timur.
How did it happen?
When Timur was released into the enclosure, instead of acting like prey and running away, it didn't show any fear.
"No one had taught the goat to be afraid of tigers," the park stated.
Zoo chief Dmitry Mezentsev called it nothing short of a miracle.
"This is a sign from above," he told AFP. "People, take a look at yourselves. There are wars everywhere — Ukraine, Syria — while such different animals can live together in peace."
A zoo director from another facility told TASS that there was an 80 to 85 percent chance of the tiger eventually eating the goat.
Near as we can tell, however, the unlikely friendship appears to be solid enough to continue into 2016.
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