Cecil the Lion

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THE INSIDE STORY OF CECIL How some good might still come from the illegal shooting of Cecil the lion

Feature Cecil and WildCRU


David Macdonald tells Georgina Ferry that some good might come from the illegal shooting of Cecil the lion

The lion, the web and the WildCRU


n 28 July 2015 the American comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel took four minutes of his live broadcast to give his reaction to the recent killing of Cecil the lion by Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer. ‘I think it’s important to have some good come out of this disgusting tragedy,’ he concluded, ‘so this is the website for the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford… If you want to make this into a positive you can make a donation to support them at the very least.’ The story, which had been circulating in the press and on social media for the previous week, went viral. Celebrities from Andy Murray to Cara Delevingne weighed in on Twitter, deploring the killing; 4.4m visitors attempted to access the WildCRU site, which temporarily crashed under the onslaught. No other story has ever kept the Oxford University press office so busy. For nearly a week the WildCRU Director, Professor David Macdonald, did nothing but give interviews by Skype and phone or to visiting TV crews, eating sandwiches on air as one interview segued to the next. The social media onslaught he found ‘unsettling and frightening’ – among all the messages of support, he received hate mail because he said in a broadcast that Palmer had suffered enough vilification and should be left in peace or at least left to the law. When I meet him five months later at the RecanatiKaplan Centre at Tubney House, Macdonald still seems bemused by it all. He and his colleagues have been studying lions in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries since 1999. Cecil, aged 13, with his distinctive black mane, was one of the study animals: he had been fitted with a GPS collar in 2009. ‘Most of the lions that die in our study area are shot by trophy hunters,’ says 2

Macdonald. ‘A proportion of those are shot illegally. It’s never gone viral before.’ He has led a study of the ‘Cecil moment’, commissioning press analysts, in order to understand more about the role of social media in people’s engagement with wildlife conservation. WildCRU is a research group within the Department of Zoology: like all research groups, it lives hand to mouth on time-limited grants and philanthropic donations. In what some have called a ‘silver lining’, the $1.1m in donations prompted by Cecil’s death will guarantee that WildCRU’s work on the lions of Zimbabwe and Botswana can continue for at least the next two years. This story is much more complicated than ‘hunters bad, conservationists good’. It was the hunting fraternity that first entreated Macdonald and his colleague Dr Andy Loveridge to set up a study on the lions of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. They were worried about declining numbers – and indeed the latest estimates (led by WildCRU) suggest that there are only 20,000 to 30,000 wild lions left in the world, a tenth of their numbers a century ago. ‘Hunting can be sustainable only if it is closely regulated,’ says Macdonald. ‘In the 1990s hunters were allowed a quota of 60 male lions per year in the area outside the park. Our research showed there were only 25 males in the park altogether: that level of offtake could not be sustained.’ The WildCRU studies showed that hunting outside the park had a ‘perturbation effect’ – it created territorial vacuums that encouraged more lions to leave the park and risk getting shot, while orphaned cubs were often killed by other males moving in on undefended prides. If hunting continued at this level


Cecil and WildCRU Feature

area to plant maize: on plots fertilised in this way crop unchecked, lions in western Zimbabwe would soon yields increased by 30%. This is significant in a region face catastrophic decline. ‘Our evidence stimulated where people regularly face starvation. ‘Modern the government authorities to introduce a moratorium conservation is about the well-being of people as well on all lion hunting in that part of the country that as lions,’ says Macdonald. ‘If lions have no economic lasted from 2004 to 2008,’ says Macdonald, ‘after value, people will stop tolerating them.’ which they set a new quota of four to five individuals per year. Andy Loveridge and I are very proud of that.’ Which brings us to trophy hunting, also known by its proponents as ‘consumptive tourism’, the practice by Fundamental to WildCRU’s research is being able to which customers pay $50,000 to $100,000 to shoot big track the lions. In the early days they were fitted with cats, rhino, elephants and other iconic but endangered radio collars: today, 20 to 25 lions at a time wear GPS species. The big-game hunting organisations argue that collars so that their movements can be tracked by their activities actually save wildlife, because game satellite. In total the team has accumulated a sample of reserves are protected from 200 lions in what is known as the development. Macdonald KAZA landscape (the Kavango acknowledges that there is some Zambezi Transfrontier truth in their claim. Conservation Area, which ‘Phototourism is one way for straddles the borders of wildlife to pay its way,’ he says, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola, ‘but much larger areas of land are Namibia and Zambia). ‘Lions dedicated to wildlife because of need habitat in which they can hunting. Much of this land is too disperse,’ says Macdonald. After US Jimmy Kimmel’s broadcast, remote and inhospitable to be ‘Loss of habitat leads to small the story went viral. Right: David attractive to tourists.’ Game populations, which are much Macdonald and Andy Loveridge attach reserves may be patrolled by more vulnerable. The KAZA a radio collar to a lioness rangers to deter poaching: landscape is the largest poachers use snares and poison, functioning ecosystem for lions as well as weapons, causing immense suffering. Another in Africa. We are exploring whether pockets of lion of WildCRU’s projects is to train and equip antihabitat can be linked by dispersal corridors: we’re poaching patrols around Hwange. studying what routes exist in the lion’s mind so that we can get those routes protected.’ Already they know that In the wake of the Cecil furore, several North some lions will travel over a 200km radius, covering as American airlines announced that they would not much as 4,000km in a year. carry ‘trophies’, or body parts, taken from the ‘big five’ African species including lions. In December the US The biggest threat to lions is not trophy hunting, but Fish and Wildlife Service enhanced the conservation poor people trying to make a living. All round the edges status of two lion subspecies and banned the import of of Hwange Park – which is not fenced – are farming trophies from countries that are not deemed to have communities, which keep cattle and goats as well as ‘established conservation programmes and wellgrowing maize and other crops. Farming destroys lion managed lion populations’. And in January 2016 the habitat, and people come into conflict with lions when state legislature of New Jersey passed a ‘Cecil the lion’ they kill their cattle and, occasionally, their children. bill banning the import of trophies through La Sometimes villagers kill lions in retaliation; lions may Guardia, JFK and Newark airports. The hunters also get caught in snares set for other species. argue that such disincentives to hunting could be bad WildCRU has set up a programme, the Long Shield news for up to half of the lion population. An official Lion Guardians, to mitigate this. ‘We recruit young statement released jointly by the Zimbabwe Parks and people from local villages and train them to prevent Wildlife Management Authority and the country’s lion predation,’ says Macdonald. ‘We give them a tourism industry in August 2015 reasserted that mountain bike, a phone, a GPS tracker and a vuvuzela ‘regulated and well-managed, responsible and ethical [the ear-splitting plastic trumpet known from South hunting can provide multiple benefits in Zimbabwe African football matches].’ When the research team to local communities and the national economy’. monitoring the lions learns from the satellite that one ‘Science could do a better job of looking at the is crossing the park border, they call the nearest ‘Long economics of hunting versus phototourism,’ says Shield’, who, guided by their GPS, cycle to the area, Macdonald. ‘We have a graduate student doing that.’ warn the farmers to move or shut up their animals, Conservationists and hunters all agree that to be and gathers a party to frighten the lion back into the sustainable, hunting needs to be strictly regulated park by lighting fires and blowing horns. The project through a system of policed quotas and licences. has halved predation of livestock, and WildCRU is now introducing the same scheme in Botswana. The sad story of Cecil began when Walter Palmer Another part of the project encourages coalitions of paid a local guide, Theo Bronkhorst, to take him families to share ‘bomas’ or secure mobile enclosures hunting near Hwange in July 2015. Driving through where they can corral their animals at night. They the bush at night, the hunters encountered Cecil, who move the bomas periodically, leaving a well-manured had wandered out of the park. Palmer shot him with JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE /YOUTUBE

Lioness with cubs. Many lions are studied from cubhood, thus providing whole life history data


Feature Cecil and WildCRU


a crossbow, wounding but not killing him: the pair offers a postgraduate diploma in International Wildlife then tracked the injured lion for 12 hours before Conservation Practice, with funding from the finishing him off, skinning him and taking his head. Recanati-Kaplan Foundation and the big cat charity Panthera (the students are known as the ‘WildCRU At that point they discovered that he was wearing a Panthers’). The money is important – WildCRU’s lion GPS collar, which soon after stopped working. project had been facing a crippling deficit in 2016 – The authorities allege that Bronkhorst did not have but for Macdonald the media outcry means more. the necessary licence, nor did the landowner have ‘All of these people might have been expressing their a quota for killing lions. concern and outrage for one lion,’ he says. ‘They might However, they say that Palmer’s paperwork was have been expressing their disdain for a particular sort in order and therefore he has no case to answer. of wealthy, white, North American male. But they might Bronkhorst and the landowner have been charged with have been saying they cared about lions, they cared organising an illegal hunt, but at the time of writing about wildlife.’ His goal now is to work out how to their case had yet to come to court. ‘This hunt was harness that crescendo of feeling. ‘Can the Cecil reprehensible,’ says Macdonald, who described Cecil’s moment be turned into a Cecil movement?’ he asks. death at the time as ‘heartbreaking’. Under other ‘Can it be a turning point that affects circumstances – if Bronkhorst the relationship between people and and the landowner had got wildlife in the twenty-first century?’ the permits – it would’ve been To that end, WildCRU is entering perfectly legal. into a relationship with 10,000 of its Macdonald and Loveridge new donors, sending them updates feared that Cecil’s death could and video messages. ‘It’s still a long put his pride under threat and road ahead,’ he says. ‘But the lead to more deaths. ‘Lions enthusiasm and interest that’s been live in male coalitions, which inspired by the not-unusual death of dominate a pride of females,’ this one lion could be transformative. says Macdonald. ‘We thought I feel a huge debt of gratitude to that Cecil’s coalition partner those millions who showed concern, Jericho wouldn’t be able to who previously had no connection hold the pride on his own with wildlife conservation.’ – that he would be ousted, and Protestors gather outside Walter In May 2015, while Cecil was still Cecil’s cubs killed.’ But at the Palmer’s dental practice in Bloomington, happily guarding his pride in beginning of 2016 the news Minnesota, July 2015 Hwange National Park, David from Hwange, together with Macdonald came in at No. 3 in the first-ever BBC photos from WildCRU field researcher Brent Wildlife Power List, ahead of David Attenborough. Stapelkamp, is much more positive. Not only were WildCRU’s work embraces not just lions, but other Cecil’s six cubs alive, but Jericho had fathered two endangered carnivores such as the Ethiopian wolf, and more with a lioness that Stapelkamp saved from a the relationship between farming and wildlife in the snare two years ago. UK. With the added impetus of the ‘Cecil movement’, The team provides updates on Cecil’s family on the Macdonald and the WildCRU team have the chance WildCRU website. His death was a tragedy, but it has to be even more influential in the years ahead. attracted new supporters. Thanks to their donations, Macdonald and his colleagues will be able to track more lions, buy more research equipment, and bring Georgina Ferry is a science writer, author and broadcaster, and former editor of Oxford Today. more Zimbabweans to Oxford for training. WildCRU

Adapted from an article first appearing in April 2016 in Oxford Today, the University Magazine of the University of Oxford. For further information visit www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk



Long Shield Lion Guardians alert local farmers to lions in their area; equipped with mountain bikes, phones, GPS trackers and vuvuzelas

Science into Practice

The mission of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) is to achieve practical Solving Conservation Problems solutions to conservation problems through original scientific research.

WildCRU, Zoology, University of Oxford The Recanati-Kaplan Centre Tubney House, Abingdon Road Tubney, Abingdon OX13 5QL, UK +44 (0)1865 611 100 wcru@zoo.ox.ac.uk www.wildcru.org www.campaign.ox.ac.uk/wildcru