Oxford University scientists have thanked members of the public who have given more than £750,000 (around US$1.1m) towards vital conservation research following the killing of Cecil the lion.
The latest figures show that 13,225 individuals and organisations have generously donated a total of £784,329 towards the ongoing work of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), whose members were studying and tracking Cecil as part of their lion conservation research in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.
Professor David Macdonald, the founding Director of WildCRU, has written an email message of thanks to more than 10,000 of those who gave money and provided their contact details. He has also recorded a personal video message filmed in Zimbabwe.
Cecil, a male Southwest African lion, was killed by a big-game hunter on 2 July this year outside the national park. He had been tracked by Oxford researchers, led by Professor Macdonald and Dr Andrew Loveridge, since 2008, and WildCRU's Hwange project has been striving to improve the conservation of lions since 1999.
Professor Macdonald, Professor of Wildlife Conservation and Director of WildCRU at Oxford, said: 'Lions are beautiful and their behaviour fascinating beyond imagination, and it is heartbreaking that they – most iconic of Africa's mammals – face a perilous decline.
'WildCRU is dedicated to reversing their plight. The death of Cecil has galvanized world attention, and its importance extends far beyond the scurrilous killing of one lion – it is a metaphor for the plight of lions, other big predators and indeed wildlife as a whole. My greatest hope is that out of this sad affair will come a global commitment to finding ways that wildlife and people can live together for the wellbeing of both.
'My huge gratitude to those who have supported us therefore extends beyond deep thanks for the money they have gifted, to the hope they have given us of a shared vision of the future, based on valuing wildlife, the environment and sustainability.'
WildCRU is 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 – even since the killing of Cecil, members of the WildCRU team and their collaborators have published a new estimate that lion numbers across the continent may be tumbling towards only 20,000. WildCRU originally focused on the lions of Hwange National Park with the support and collaboration of Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, but the project, like the lions it tracks, now extends across the landscape into neighbouring Botswana. The goal is to understand the threats that lions face and to use cutting-edge science to develop solutions to those threats.
The work is meticulous – WildCRU has satellite-tracked the movements of more than 200 lions and monitored every detail of the lives of more than 500 individuals – and highly practical, with initiatives including a courageous anti-poaching team, a local conservation theatre group, and an education campaign that takes information into every school in the district. The team also works with local farmers to help them live alongside lions and improve their livelihoods. This initiative involves villagers known as Long Shields protecting local cattle (and people) from lions by receiving information on the lions' movements via satellite.
Professor Macdonald said: 'It is 16 years since Dr Andrew 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 WildCRU are dedicated to discovering.
'Cecil was a glorious male lion with a fascinating family history, from which we had learnt a lot about lions' private lives, and his death was 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 to buy satellite collars, maintain our field vehicles, and train excellent young Zimbabwean conservationists.
'WildCRU is funded entirely by donations, and the Hwange-Okavango lion project alone costs us more than £150,000 a year to maintain at its current level of excellence. We urgently need to expand it in order to study and conserve lions over the entire landscape that spans western Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia. We are overwhelmed with gratitude for the support, encouragement and very generous gifts we have received over the past five months – they ensure the project will survive, and thus that we can strive to ensure that lions survive too.'
Members of WildCRU reported earlier this month that a four-and-a-half-year-old male lion nicknamed Xanda, who is almost certainly one of Cecil's sons, had been seen mating, suggesting that Cecil's grand offspring could be on the way.
Donations to WildCRU can be made online.