Few wild animals are as widely admired as lions. Yet the big cats' numbers have plummeted in recent generations, due largely to habitat loss and hunting by humans. Already absent from 80 percent of their historic range, the planet's remaining wild lions have seen their population drop by 42 percent in the past 21 years alone.
Wildlife declines like this can be especially daunting when they seem distant and faceless to most people. But this week, the long-running plight of lions was suddenly embodied by a familiar face and name: Cecil.
The 13-year-old male was killed in Zimbabwe this month by a U.S. dentist and two local guides, who allegedly lured Cecil out of a national park, shot him with an arrow and then pursued him for 40 hours before killing him. Hundreds of "trophy" lions are exported from Africa every year, but since the group reportedly lacked permits for this hunt, authorities have declared Cecil's killing illegal.
This might not normally make international news, but Cecil happened to be a celebrity. Not only was he a tourist magnet at Hwange National Park, where he led a pride containing 12 cubs, but he also wore a GPS tracking collar as part of a study by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University.
The event has understandably spurred anger and sadness around the world, especially given Cecil's outsized role as a pride leader and ambassador for his species. But as many conservationists have noted in the wake of Cecil's death, the best reaction isn't necessarily outrage. A better reaction would be action — specifically action on behalf of the remaining lions whose future is still unfolding.
If you feel inspired to protect other lions like Cecil, you could help out one of the many conservation groups working on that very goal. We won't try to list them all here, but below is a list of five examples, along with links to additional options:
Founded in 2000 by a group of conservationists, this nonprofit oversees the rehab and long-term management of eight national parks in Africa. Working with local governments and communities, it places emphasis on "achieving financial sustainability of the parks by combining long-term donor funding with tourism revenues, related business enterprise and payment for ecosystem services, which all serve as a foundation for economic development and poverty alleviation."
This long-running National Geographic project is meant to preserve big cats around the world, including lions, tigers, cheetahs and leopards — all of which have suffered severe population declines. Along with partner groups like Panthera, Ewaso Lions and the Global Tiger Initiative, it supports "on-the-ground conservation and education projects ... to save these majestic animals in their natural habitats." It has funded projects such as anti-poaching patrols, medical treatment for snared lions, guard dogs to protect livestock and relocating problem lions from conflict areas.
Launched in 2007, Lion Guardians works to help people and lions coexist across Kenya and Tanzania. The group trains young Maasai and other local pastoralists to "mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife, monitor lion populations, and help their own communities live with lions." It currently supports more than 80 East African "guardians" who protect lions over more than 1 million acres. "Our guardians feel a sense of ownership over the lions they monitor," co-founder Stephanie Dolrenry told MNN in 2014. "It's the same type of strong bond that they have with their cows — it's their livelihood, and it has become their reputation."
Since its inception in 1999, the VFAPU has worked with local authorities to become a potent force against poaching in the area. It's one of many local anti-poaching units working to protect lions and other African wildlife, employing 12 full-time scouts who patrol an area of 50 square kilometers (12,300 acres) around Victoria Falls. The patrols operate seven days a week in an effort "to combat poaching in all its various forms," the group says, including more insidious methods like snaring and poisoning.
Known as WildCRU for short, this Oxford University project was founded in 1986 to "tackle the emerging biodiversity crisis and wider environmental issues by bridging the gap between academic theory and practical problem solving." It now includes more than 50 researchers from 30 countries, and it has partnered with Panthera as part of its focus on big-cat conservation. Cecil was one of WildCRU's study lions, and the group calls his death a "tragic" reminder of the danger facing all wild lions.
"Cecil was a glorious male lion, with a fascinating family history as he maintained a large pride," WildCRU director David Macdonald says in a statement. "Just a few months ago we were thrilled to watch him at close quarters in the field, and so his seemingly illegal death is heartbreaking. However, our goal is to learn from it. Good can come from this if the world's attention can lead to support for our work to improve lion conservation."
This is just a partial list to convey the possibilities. There are dozens of other worthy organizations working to save lions, including AfriCat Foundation, Lion Aid, Lion Alert, Predator Conservation Trust, Tashinga Initiative and Uganda Conservation Foundation, to name a few. For more, see this roundup from World Lion Day.