News and analysis
August 04, 2015

Shooting of Cecil the Lion Drives $858,000 in Donations

Brent Stapelkamp/Polaris/Newscom

The shooting last month of 13-year-old Cecil the lion outside a park in Zimbabwe has set off a world firestorm of protests and boosted support for big-cat conservation.

Public outrage about the killing of a lion named Cecil on the outskirts of a protected park in Zimbabwe late last month has driven more than £550,000, or about $858,000, to the Oxford University-based Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, officials there said Tuesday.

Nearly 12,000 people have contributed, including American philanthropists and conservationists Tom and Daphne Kaplan, who pledged to match donations up to $100,000. The new total eclipses the original £500,000 fundraising goal for the Cecil Appeal, as the fundraising work was named.

David Macdonald, director of the conservation unit, said in statement that he and his colleagues hoped to keep up the momentum.

"I believe that the worldwide engagement with Cecil’s story transcends the tragic fate of one lion, and sends a signal that people care about conservation and want it to be reflected in how humanity lives alongside nature in the 21st century," Mr. Macdonald said. "We feel inspired by this support and will work tirelessly to deliver the science and understanding that will enable wildlife and people to coexist for the well-being of both."

Late last month, the 13-year-old Cecil was lured outside the perimeter of Hwange National Park and killed through what Zimbabwe officials say were illegal hunting tactics. The shooter, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, says he paid $50,000 to local handlers to participate in what he had been assured was a legal hunt. He now faces possible extradition.

The Wildlife Conservation Research Unit had tracked Cecil the lion since 2008 as part of research on Africa’s shrinking lion population. Scientists believe there are fewer than 30,000 lions remaining on the continent, as a result of poaching and encroachment on natural habitats.

Uptick at National Geographic

David Bennett, chief development officer at the National Geographic Society, said the organization has also seen a spike in donations related to the killing of Cecil. In a typical month, National Geographic receives about 600 donations for its Big Cats Initiative, which was started in 2009 and funds conservation efforts in 25 countries. During the last week, the organization has processed about 700 donations a day, Mr. Bennett said. More than 90 percent of the contributions were from first-time donors, he said.

National Geographic had already planned a two-week, social media-based fundraising campaign leading up to World Lion Day on August 10. Those who have donated publicly include Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor and former governor of California.

Mr. Bennett said it has been interesting to see how donors have used the campaign, which adopted the hashtag #5forbigcats, to express their feelings about the hunting of Cecil. Before the shooting, the campaign had been planned with a more light-hearted touch, he said, but it quickly took on greater significance.

"We went out with fuzzy," Mr. Bennett said. "Circumstances changed."

Fundraising efforts at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit got a boost after Jimmy Kimmel made an appeal for the research center on his television show on July 29.

As an indication of its expenses, the research center said the satellite collars used to track lions cost about $2,300 each, plus another $779 a year to download hourly locations from satellites. Keeping its anti-poaching team in the field costs $31,000 annually.

The relationship between big-game hunting and conservation in Africa is complicated. In some places, hunters pay huge fees to legally hunt animals, some of them old and no longer able to reproduce. The revenue is then used to protect habitats and larger communities of wildlife. The results of that model are debated, however. Illegal poaching, including in protected parks and preserves, is rampant, driven by an international black market for animal parts such as rhino horns and elephant tusks.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.