Pro-hunting groups are involved in funding the University of Oxford research team, which had been studying Cecil the Lion, whose killing by a US dentist in 2015 caused global outrage.
It has been revealed that the prestigious university’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), which had tracked Cecil since 2008, is part funded by conservation group Panthera and an organization named the Dallas Safari Club – both of which support ‘sustainable’ hunting.
Following the Zimbabwean Lion’s death, WildCRU is said to have received over $1,000,000 in donations from animal lovers expressing disgust at Cecil’s killing by US dentist Walter Palmer.
Palmer went into hiding after becoming a global pariah virtually overnight when it emerged he and his guides had lured Cecil with food, shot him with a bow, then tracked him for 40 hours before finishing him off with a bullet.
WildCRU’s founder Professor David Macdonald defending the initiative, telling the Daily Mail: “There is no risk of any donor affecting our results – we report our results regardless of whether they state any particular point of view or not.
With around 20 000 wild Lions left in Africa, you’d imagine considerable antipathy between hunters and researchers with conservation in their unit’s title. Those donating in Cecil’s name certainly thought so. But on the ground, the distinction is blurred. The signals may seem confusing, but only if you think WildCRU’s role is to protect lions.
The expectation was that WildCRU would use the money to protect lions in the park and prevent any future such killings. With the equivalent of nearly R20-million in the bank, it found no fault with this. But were they in a position to comply?
The answer came two years later when Cecil’s son, Xanda, a pride leader with a WildCRU collar, was shot by a professional hunter named Richard Cooke just outside the borders of Hwange near where Cecil died. Cooke, it turned out, had also killed Xanda’s four-year-old brother in 2015.
Xanda was six years old and a father with several young cubs, most of whom would probably have been killed without him to defend them. There was understandable media outrage following the hunt. An international lobby coalition, Tourists Against Trophy Hunting, called for an immediate end to trophy killing in Zimbabwe.
WildCRU’s response was puzzling and, for the thousands of people who donated to the Cecil fund, disappointing. The unit’s research fellow, Dr Andrew Loveridge, said Xanda was “a very, very lovely animal” and it was “sad that anyone wanted to shoot a Lion”, but offered no condemnation of the killing
“The rule of thumb that a six-year-old male Lion is post-reproductive and can therefore be hunted,” he told me. “This is in my experience incorrect and I believe this should be acknowledged in hunting policy and recommendations. We’re also recommending that a no-hunting buffer should be implemented around national parks to prevent hunters baiting and shooting park Lions that are regularly viewed by tourists.”
Both Cecil and Xanda were lured out of the safety zone of the Hwange National Park by Palmer and Cooke.
Chris MacSween, a trustee of the conservation charity LionAid, said it was “unfortunate” that organisations allowed pro-hunters to sponsor their research.
She said: “This is equivalent to a tobacco company accepting research from their stable of scientists to say that smoking is not damaging to health.”
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