Cecil and the conservation of lions

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At the WildCRU, in the Recanati-Kaplan Centre at Oxford, we are studying lions in various parts of Africa to uncover the science that will inform and underpin their conservation. This is urgent, because lion numbers are precariously low, estimated at fewer than 30,000 across the continent and we have evidence that there are actually fewer. We have worked on the lions of Hwange National Park, with the support and collaboration of the excellent Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Our goal is to understand the threats that lions face, and to use cutting-edge science to develop solutions to those threats. Our work is scientific, we have satellite-tracked the movements of over a hundred lions and monitored every detail of the lives of more than 500 individuals, but WildCRU’s work is also highly practical – we run a courageous anti-poaching team, a local conservation theatre group, and education campaign that gets information into every school in the district, and we work with local farmers to help them live alongside lions and improve their livelihoods.

Since the beginning_sm

Cecil was one of our study lions. We had followed his movements in minute detail since 2008 – these are remarkable data. Of course, as people devoted to wildlife, and having known Cecil personally, we are deeply saddened by his death, and insofar as this happened allegedly illegally we consider it deeply reprehensible (and we are working closely with the National Parks authorities to support their meticulous work in prosecuting this case). We support all efforts to prevent illegal and unscrupulous hunts.

Despite our sadness, as scientists, we seek to learn from this event, and to find some benefit from it. A very important aspect of lion conservation is what we call the perturbation effect: namely the cascading effects on the surviving lions of the death of one of them – in brief, we have found that when a male lion is killed, because of the way their society works, a likely consequence is the overthrow and death of other adult male members of his weakened coalition (normally of brothers), and the subsequent infanticide of his cubs by the incoming new coalition of males. We are working hard to study the consequences of Cecil's death on his pride and their neighbours, so that we learn as much as possible. This requires hard work, manpower and expensive equipment, as does our wider work on lion conservation in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa.

Cecil's apparently illegal death is tragic, but many people have asked us if any good can come of it. First, it is amazing that this episode has heightened awareness of lion conservation worldwide. Supporting conservation is the purpose of our work – conservation involves huge challenges, both in the science and the practice, and we are deeply grateful for the public interest and support. Second, people have asked if they can support our work through donations – the answer is yes, urgently, and we rely entirely on philanthropy. Donations could support the purchase of more satellite tracking collars, support of our field vehicles and field staff, also, very importantly; we train wonderful young Zimbabwean conservationists, bringing some of them to Oxford on scholarships for world-class training in conservation.

We are a team of world-class professionals, and our equipment and operating costs, working under challenging conditions, is expensive. People have asked how much this work costs. It costs us approximately £150,000 pa to maintain the lion project at its current level of excellence, and in reality we need to expand it, to study and conserve lions over the entire landscape that spans western Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. We can do this only if we secure funds. To give you an idea, each satellite collar costs about £1,500, with an annual fee to download the hourly locations from the satellite of £500. We need £20,000 pa to keep our anti-poaching team in the field, cutting illegal snare wires. To bring a Zimbabwean student to study conservation in Oxford on our world-renowned Diploma course costs £15,000. We need four wheel-drive vehicles, tyres for them, fuel to run them – so no donation is too small to be helpful.

Professor Macdonald, Director of the WildCRU said, “It is twenty years since Dr Andy Loveridge and I set up this project, and our scientific findings have made a major contribution to lion conservation – the best hope for lions lies in having the best possible conservation science, and that is what we at the WildCRU are dedicated to discovering”. He added “Cecil was a glorious male lion, with a fascinating family history as he maintained a large pride. Just a few months ago we were thrilled to watch him at close quarters in the field, and so his seemingly illegal death is heartbreaking. However, our goal is to learn from it. Good can come from this if the world's attention can lead to support for our work to improve lion conservation – helping us buy satellite collars, maintain our field vehicles and train excellent young Zimbabwean conservationists". Professor Macdonald emphasised the excellent work of the Zimbabwean Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and said "The WildCRU team is working hard to support the Zimbabwe Parks Authority in their diligent efforts to enforce the law".

Further quotes from David Macdonald: "I am horrified at the illegal death of Cecil – our team is working hard to support the diligent efforts of Zimbabwe's excellent National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority as they seek to stamp out such illegal killing of lions and work hard for the conservation of these magnificent animals"

"The modern world is a hostile place for large carnivores like lions. It will take all our ingenuity and determination to secure their conservation alongside the development of local communities. Conservation solutions depend on the best possible science, for the benefit of wildlife and local people, and the WildCRU's work is dedicated to undertaking that science and working with policy-makers to implement it. We desperately need support – millions of people have been affected by Cecil's death – and by the plight of lions in general - and imagine they are powerless at preventing further lion decline. However, those millions can make an immediate and real difference – if each of them made a pledge of support to the WildCRU this would revolutionise our work for conservation, and hugely improve the long-term outlook for lions both in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. That would be a worth memorial to a lion as magnificent as Cecil, who has provided so much to WildCRU and the world".

Donations can be made at http://www.everydayhero.co.uk/event/Wildcru-Cecil-the-lion

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