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Cecil the lion in 2014.

Cecil the lion in 2014.

Vince O'Sullivan/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For one lion researcher, Cecil’s death spurs outpouring of support

The death of Cecil the lion, a particularly photogenic male cat in Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, has sparked international outrage. Cecil was allegedly lured out of the reserve in early July by hunting guides, and then shot with an arrow by Walter Palmer, a trophy hunter and dentist from Minnesota. Palmer reportedly paid more than $50,000 for the opportunity. U.S. and Zimbabwean officials are now seeking to question Palmer, who has dropped out of sight.

For one researcher, however, Cecil’s death may have a silver lining. David Macdonald is part of a team of scientists at the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Research Conservation Unit in the United Kingdom that was studying Cecil. They have been tracking the movements of more than 200 lions with satellites to better understand the animals' behavior. After Jimmy Kimmel, a popular U.S. TV host, made an emotional plea for lion conservation on his show on 28 July, donations started pouring in to Macdonald’s program. Since Kimmel’s appeal, the research unit has received some $500,000 in donations.

ScienceInsider spoke with Macdonald about his work and Cecil. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What was your reaction when you heard of the death of this lion?

A: As a conservation biologist, it is my day-to-day work to find animals that I'm working on suffering gruesome deaths. So I am familiar with that and I seek, if possible, to make the best of it by using the information to build a stronger scientific case. On the other hand, I’m a conservation biologist because I care about wildlife. And as I have studied [Cecil] for years, and know it individually and have taken great joy watching it at close quarters, I was saddened at the thought of its death. And because it appears in this case that at least some of the actors in this were behaving illegally, one is not only saddened but enraged.

There is a third perspective: This is an example of the day-to-day reality of conservation biology trying to find ways of people and wildlife living together. Across the whole continent of Africa, lion conservation is largely in crisis. It’s a very important but also very challenging issue [of] aligning the needs of biodiversity conservation with the needs of human and community development.

Q: Cecil was wearing a GPS collar. What do you use that for in your research?

A: We have a system where as a lion starts to leave the park and go into the farming areas, where it may kill livestock and be a threat to people, the satellite informs my staff member in headquarters in the park. We have trained and recruited a series of very democratically chosen local people, called the Wildcru Long Shields. Each Long Shield is provided with a mountain bike, a GPS tracker, and a cellphone. As our person in the park sees a lion head toward a particular farming area, he phones the local Long Shield on the cellphone, who then uses the GPS to go to the place where the lion is. [The Long Shield] uses a vuvuzela, you know one of these trumpets, to frighten the lion back into the park. Last year we believe we have cut by 80% the loss of domestic stock by this method. 

Q: Jimmy Kimmel urged viewers to support your research …  

A: I admire what he did greatly. He has catalyzed a wonderful action. Our project relies entirely on philanthropic gifts. Every time we fit a satellite tracking collar to a lion, it costs us £1500 ($2350). Every year for each lion it costs us £500 ($780) to download the satellite data. Every time we have people going into the field, they have to drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle. To run this particular project, excluding the senior staff salaries, is going to cost us between £150,000 and £200,000 ($234,000 and $312,000) next year. We had no idea how we were going to pay for that.

Q: Has the appeal raised enough money?

A: At the moment it is close to half a million dollars. Hopefully it means we will be able to expand the project from Zimbabwe into adjoining areas in Botswana and Zambia. [That would make] it a landscape-scale project, rather than just in one national park. We have also been engaged in a program that I'm very proud of, where we have been finding aspiring young Zimbabweans and training them as conservation biologists, in some cases giving them scholarships to come to Oxford and be trained here. If this appeal enables us to do more of these things, that would be the most wonderful outcome. It would be a fitting memorial, you might say, to the sad and reprehensible loss of this lion.