Photograph by Mark C. Ross, Nat Geo Image Collection      
Read Caption

A lioness and her cub in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania.

Photograph by Mark C. Ross, Nat Geo Image Collection      

Cecil the Lion’s Death Spurred Donations to Wildlife Groups … Now What?

After a trophy hunter killed one of Africa’s most famous lions, interest in conservation soared.

Cecil the lion’s illegal killing inspired people around the world to do more than voice outrage. Several organizations that work to protect big cats have seen an increase in interest and donations. 

Three weeks ago, Oxford University’s Wildlife Research Conservation Unit, which had been tracking Cecil, considered scaling back its anti-poaching efforts because it was running out of money. Now, after Cecil’s death and an emotional mention from late night host Jimmy Kimmel, WildCRU has received over 300,000 British Pounds ($468,660 U.S. dollars) in donations.

That number’s growing: Philanthropists Tom and Daphne Kaplan have pledged $100,000 to match donations “dollar for dollar, pound for pound.” WildCRU founder David Macdonald told National Geographic that these new donations “may rescue some of the work that was in jeopardy.”

National Geographic’s Alexander Moen, speaking on behalf of the High Five, Give $5, Save Big Cats campaign for the Big Cats Initiative, says although they’re still compiling the data, they too have seen more donations than usual lately. “I don’t have the raw analytics in front of me,” he says. “But just doing some basic scrolling through the Twitter feeds, you see plenty of instances with Cecil tagged as well as High 5, Give 5,” he says.

One person who donated directly in response to Cecil’s killing was Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator called protecting big cats “ballsy.”

How Does Money Help Lions?

This sudden influx has left WildCRU momentarily unsure about how to spend the new money. “We need to make some strategic decisions once the dust has settled,” writes Oxford research fellow Andrew Loveridge in an email. Loveridge worked closely with Cecil.

Some of WildCRU’s funding goes to studying the lions in order to better protect them, which is why Cecil was wearing a GPS collar at the time he was killed. And Loveridge hopes to direct a portion of the new funds into the training of young Zimbabwean conservationists.

Many of WildCRU’s additional efforts are in keeping with techniques used by other conservation groups. Essentially, they try to prevent the daily dangers humans pose to lions.

This goes beyond stopping poachers who are seeking trophies or animal parts for traditional medicines. Conservationists fight the poaching of animals lions would otherwise eat, and they cut hunting snares, which can trap and kill lions.

There’s also a threat to lions posed by the people who live closest to them. Global wild cat conservation group Panthera—which has ties to WildCRU and the Big Cat Initiative—spends money in communities around Hwange National Park to stop retaliatory lion killings by people who depend on livestock the predators might eat.

“Human populations and their livestock populations are growing,” says Panthera President Luke Hunter. “When they co-occur with lions and other big carnivores, there’s an inevitable conflict and lions end up poisoned, and speared, and killed, and so on.” He adds: “Far more so I would say than trophy hunting, this is one of the real drivers of lion declines across Africa.”

To that end, Panthera, WildCRU, and the Big Cats Initiative fund projects that improve livestock corrals, like Big Cats Initiative grantee Laly Lichtenfeld’s living thorn walls, which are designed to keep predators away from livestock.

Conservation groups also need funding to make sure protected parks like Cecil’s home in Hwange are actually protected. “You need well trained park rangers, you need a lot of them, you need them well equipped, you need them out there,” Hunter says. “I think we have to get over the debate of whether hunting is good or bad but really address the issue of the kinds of resources that governments will need to secure their protected areas.”

The outpouring of support for the world’s few remaining big cats is a silver lining to Cecil’s killing, says Hunter. “Look, I wish I could say that it will continue to last for a long time. Cecil’s death is a symbol of the much larger issues facing lions.”

Follow Rachel A. Becker on Twitter.

Share your support of big cats by donating $5 and uploading a photo of yourself giving a virtual high five to any social media platform, with the hashtag #5forBigCats. Learn more.