Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) is working on initiatives to conserve the African lion as their numbers are dwindling to 20,000 - and falling.

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 conservationCecil was one of WildCRU's study lions - the Oxford Zoology department that followed his movements in minute detail from 2008 until his death last year

By Olivia Gordon

The shooting of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in July 2015 may yet change the fortunes of African lions for the better. Working out how to harness the exceptional public response to Cecil’s death was the purpose of the Cecil Summit, a public meeting organised this month by Oxford University Zoology’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and Panthera, an organisation for protecting wild cats. 

Cecil the lion: one year anniversary update

As one participant, philanthropist Tom Kaplan, explained: 'Cecil gave lions a voice. The purpose of this summit was to be able to give lions a roar.’ 

Now, more than a year after Cecil’s killing, and with lions vanishing across Africa, conservationists are desperate to keep the fire of public and media interest burning. The director of WildCRU, Professor David Macdonald, said that the Cecil Summit would one day be looked back on as ‘making history’. WildCRUWildCRU, based at Oxford, studies lions in various parts of Africa to uncover the science that will inform and underpin their conservation

‘What are we going to do with the world’s attention? The Cecil moment must not be squandered,’ he said. ‘Could there be an opportunity to transform the Cecil moment into the Cecil movement? We need new ideas. I conceived the idea of bringing together lion insiders and outsiders for three days, between disciplines, to try to break the mould of lion conservation.’

Speakers at the discussion included David Macdonald as well as leading lion biologist Professor Craig Packer, Lovemore Sibanda, a WildCRU DPhil graduate who works with the department’s lion project in Zimbabwe, Masai leader John Kamanga, Achim Steiner, recently Director General of the United Nations Environment Programme, Richard Damiana from the World Bank, Luke Hunter from Panthera, and Rory Stewart MP, Minister of International Development. The meeting was chaired by Alan Rusbridger, Principal of Lady Margaret Hall. Tom Kaplan, PhilanthropistIt costs WildCRU approximately £150,000 a year to maintain the lion project, and ideally it would expand to western Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia

Macdonald described the viral global response to Cecil’s death as ‘extraordinary’. After WildCRU was mentioned by US TV host Jimmy Kimmel, millions of people ‘melted’ Oxford University and WildCRU’s websites. ‘It was the greatest engagement in Oxford’s history,’ notes Macdonald. Oxford Today reported on the impact in its Trinity 2016 issue, where it was the cover story.

Urgent change is needed to reverse Africa’s loss of lions. They have disappeared from 90% of their historic range, with a 43% decline in numbers over the last 21 years. The problem is set to get worse. Trophy hunting is in fact far down the list of dangers to lion populations, Macdonald said. Bigger threats include habitat loss, human encroachment, human-lion conflict and poaching.

During September’s summit, several areas of innovation were agreed on, including restoring the economic and social value of lions, benefitting the national communities where lions are endangered, increasing global interest in lion conservation, and financing lion conservation.  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 deathCecil was a male Southwest African lion who lived primarily in the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe

During a two-hour discussion between the panel and speakers from the audience who had come from universities around the world, many ideas were raised. The public needs to be educated that preserving lions will in turn provide life support to conserve the entire ecosystem beneath the lion. The status of protected areas needs to be improved to keep lions safe. But the cost of lion preservation is extremely high – billions of dollars’ funding every year will be needed, in some of the world’s poorest countries – and charitable funds will be in competition with major humanitarian disasters around the world. Rory Stewart spoke of his commitment to the cause and said that the Department for International Development would study the video of the summit intensively.

While in the developed world, lions are seen as magical creatures, for communities living close to lions, lions can be very real threats to livestock and therefore livelihoods, and one key reform everyone in the room seemed in agreement on was the need to make lions paying assets for local communities. 

One specific strategy mooted was the successful South African model, where tourism has led to an increase in lions as well as jobs for local people. Fences have been built in South Africa which safeguard people and livestock from lions, and also keep lions safe from people. 

Another success story is the work of WildCRU so far, which is having a positive impact in southern Africa. For example, local people are engaged as ‘lion guardians’ – they monitor when lions stray into populated areas, warn farmers to shut away their animals, and then scare the lions back to safety with vuvuzelas. 

‘That’s conservation, baby! That’s the gold standard,’ praised Tom Kaplan. He concluded optimistically: ‘It is possible to blend environmental with economic development.’

Images © Oxford University Images, Andrew Harrington