Cecil the lion’s legacy: five years on

21 December 2020

Lion numbers have disappeared from 92% of their historical range. The death of Cecil the lion and the resulting global outcry brought this sobering fact into sharp focus. Cecil was first fitted with a GPS satellite collar in November 2008 when he was between five and six years old. He was a male lion coming into his prime. Over the next eight years, while Oxford University’s WildCRU monitored his movements, Cecil, and his coalition partner Jericho, succeeded in claiming, and successfully holding, territory in the eastern part of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, home to the Ngweshla pride. In July 2015 he was killed by a hunter from the USA.

The ensuing global outcry and media storm generated unprecedented support for WildCRU’s lion programme – raising more than £750,000. Five years on, the conservation group based in the University of Oxford, can report on the legacy of Cecil.

Dr Andrew Loveridge, Director of WildCRU’s Trans-Kalahari Predator Programme, said: ‘Cecil was one of the many lions whose lives we have studied in intimate detail over the last 20 years. His death was emotional and saddening for our research team but the global response surrounding his loss took us by surprise. Perhaps the level of public concern might have been something to do with the manner of his death at the hands of an American bow hunter, or perhaps because the society we live in is rightly starting to question the destructive relationship humanity has with nature.

‘Indeed the future of lions is inextricably entangled with the future choices of human society and the willingness of African people to share a landscape with these beautiful, but dangerous creatures.’

Following support received in the wake of Cecil’s death, the WildCRU's Trans-Kalahari Predator Programme (formerly the Hwange Lion Project) has been able to:

  • expand its field research on lion ecology and behaviour to inform conservation planning and policy
  • boost community projects to mitigate human-lion conflict and promote co-existence
  • support educational scholarships in Botswana and Oxford

Dr Moreangels Mbizah from Zimbabwe, who had previously undertaken WildCRU’s Post Graduate Diploma in International Wildlife Conservation Practice, successfully completed her doctorate in 2018 with support from Cecil Funds.

Since leaving Oxford Dr Mbizah has gone on to found an NGO in Zimbabwe to promote human-wildlife coexistence and socio-economic development of communities living next to wildlife areas.

During a TED talk in 2019 Dr Mbizah said, ‘The communities that live with the lions are the ones best positioned to help the lions the most’.

Professor David Macdonald, WildCRU’s Director, who founded the lion project with Dr Loveridge, said: ‘From science into practice, I can scarcely think of impacts that better fulfil WildCRU’s mission, which is to achieve practical solutions to conservation problems through original scientific research. There are now 60% more lions in our core study area than when we started, the food security of poor rural communities is improved, and remarkable young Zimbabweans are being trained to the highest international standards.’

Education and Training

WildCRU provides opportunities for enterprising and talented conservationists to train as world class conservation practitioners. Combining this training with their connection to their natural heritage, appreciation of local culture and in-depth understanding of economic environments, these individuals are exceptionally placed to drive forward sustainable conservation efforts.

Supporting the Coexistence of Humans and Wildlife

When lions stray out of protected areas into community spaces they occasionally kill livestock, causing serious economic loss. Livestock losses often lead to the retaliatory killing of lions by members of the community. Across Africa, losses to retaliatory killing contributes significantly to the decline in numbers of wild lions. By developing coexistence programmes with local communities WildCRU has been able to help substantially reduce the loss of livestock and therefore also reduce the number of lions killed in retaliation.

Understanding the ecology and behaviour of lions in the landscape

Through detailed scientific research WildCRU aims to understand and evaluate conservation problems and then implement appropriate practical solutions to solving them. As wide-ranging predators, healthy lion populations need vast amounts of space. With growing human and livestock numbers driving an increased demand for land, areas that have previously been suitable for wildlife are now being used by farmers. Research to understand the ecology and behaviour of lions is critical to protecting them. It helps in understanding how changing land use change is fragmenting natural habitat, isolating lion populations and increasing vulnerability to local extinctions. This supports WildCRU’s work with policy makers to ensure that conservation plans are under-pinned by high quality research.

Facts about project impact 2015-2020

  • Lion population status surveyed over 4.7 million acres in 10 protected areas
  • 20 lions fitted with GPS trackers to follow their movements
  • Lion population in core study area increased by 60%
  • Over 50 livestock enclosures built to protect people’s livestock from lion predation
  • 67 Community Lion Guardians trained
  • Nearly 1300 rural African households benefit from project’s Guardian programme

Notes to Editors

Read the full report, ‘The Cecil Fund: Creating a Legacy’: https://www.wildcru.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Cecil-Fund-Report.pdf

Image caption: Cubs are from the Ngweshla pride. The females in this pride are Cecil’s daughters. Copyright Andrew Loveridge

To request images or speak to researchers at WildCRU, please email: emma.stewart-wood@zoo.ox.ac.uk

About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fifth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

About WildCRU
David Macdonald founded the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) in 1986 at the University of Oxford. Now the foremost University-based centre for biodiversity conservation, the mission of the WildCRU is to achieve practical solutions to conservation problems through original research. WildCRU is particularly renowned for its work with wild carnivores, especially wild cats, including its long-running studies on lion and clouded leopard. Its training centre for early-career conservationists, so far from 40 countries, produces experts and future leaders in global conservation. Visit www.wildcru.org for more about the WildCRU and www.wildcru.org/tkpp for further information on the Trans-Kalahari Predator Programme.