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Cecil the lion

Lion populations are at a tipping point.

There are now fewer than 25,000 left in the wild. But while there is general public appreciation of the consequences of a decline in the lion population, the causes behind the fall are less understood.

Public outcry flooded social media when Cecil the lion’s son, Xanda, was killed by a hunter in Zimbabwe in July, meeting the same fate as his father a year before. Big game trophy hunting is one of the most widely reviled threats to the lion population, and consequently one of the most discussed. However, the biggest single threat to the future of wild big cats is not trophy hunting. It is direct, everyday conflict with humans. An issue that has not yet captured public consciousness in the same way.

In 2011, 37 lions were killed in the area around a single village. That’s the equivalent of half the wild lions lost to trophy killings across the whole of Africa, in a year.

For some groups in Africa, such as the Barabaig and Maasai tribes of Tanzania, lion hunting is a cultural norm. Lions are considered a vermin, akin to rats in the city or foxes on farms. They are a very real danger to local people’s families and their livestock — very few of us would be happy having lions roaming around and threatening us, especially with no means of protecting ourselves. In these parts of Africa, a local person who kills a big cat is lauded by the community, and the killing is considered a mark of status and bravery.

Dr Amy Dickman of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) is working to protect the lion prides of Africa in southern Tanzania, along with her team at the Ruaha Carnivore Project. By offering incentives for conservation to the community, they have encouraged local people to value lions rather than regarding them mainly as a dangerous pest. Since the project launched six years ago, carnivore attacks on livestock in these communities have been reduced by 60%, and big cat killings have decreased by 80%.

Read the full interview with Amy Dickman about the innovative ways she has found to bring about these changes.

Story courtesy of Lanisha Butterfield in the University of Oxford News Office.