WildCRU making a difference

August 6, 2015

David Macdonald writes about how WildCRU has made a difference: I am fond of remarking that, in my experience, it is very difficult to be interesting, but very much more difficult to be useful. At the WildCRU we are hard taskmasters because we try to judge ourselves on whether we make a difference – our mission is to be useful. With that in mind, Andy Loveridge and I have been musing on what we have achieved, supported by our tirelessly diligent team at Hwange, in the context of Cecil’s death. First, we want to remind you that the WildCRU’s Hwange Lion Research Project is a science-based conservation project whose first priority is to provide the robust scientific data to allow conservationists to make sound decisions that are based on solid empirical evidence.

The legacy of the project speaks for itself. In 1999 when we first started this work lion trophy hunting was virtually unrestricted because the quotas were set unsustainably and unrealistically high. In 2000, 63 male lions were given on hunting quotas in the areas directly adjacent to Hwange. Our work demonstrated that hunting on the boundaries of the park had far reaching impacts on lion ecology, social behaviour and demographics. We showed that hunting lions on the border of the park draws more lions into the territorial vacuums so created, exposing a high proportion of the population to human caused mortality on the park boundary. These findings prompted the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (with whom we work in close partnership) to ban lion hunting in 2004. This management decision, taken in response to evidence that the WildCRU study had documented, was highly responsible, but also represented a loss of revenue for an institution reliant on revenue from hunting to pay its conservation bills. As a result of this ban the lion population recovered rapidly and spectacularly, with a 50% increase in population size and 200% increase in adult males. None of this would have been possible without the careful evidence-based scientific work undertaken by the WildCRU project and our partners in the Parks authority.

In 2008, wildlife managers reintroduced hunting, but at significantly lower levels to previous quotas. Once again, our role was as forensically careful observers, unearthing facts to fuel understanding. This is exactly what we were doing, along with much else (most importantly trying to help local farmers in often impoverished communities to live alongside the lions that sadly often kill their livestock), when we tagged Cecil in 2008. Now, in the aftermath of the illegal hunt of Cecil, the Parks and Wildlife Authority have once again taken a bold and decisive move and suspended all hunting of lions, leopards and elephants in the hunting areas directly adjacent to Hwange for the foreseeable future. We applaud this courageous decision.

Our success is measured in the hugely improved protection that the Hwange lions now enjoy. We can’t protect against every threat, as the heartbreaking death of Cecil illustrates, but we can work with Park authorities to fight against illegal poaching and over-exploitation. There have been huge strides made along this road, but we have a long way to go to secure Hwange’s lions and the futures of those across the rest of Africa. There is no doubt that the death of Cecil has changed the face of lion conservation around Hwange and perhaps across Africa. Andy Loveridge and I were, just a few weeks ago, formulating ambitious plans to expand the Hwange project throughout the surrounding landscape (through which our satellite tagged lions regularly disperse, sometimes, oblivious of national barriers, into Botswana and Zambia) – now, with your support we are working hard to turn those plans swiftly into a reality.

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