Photo by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic

Cecil’s Legacy: Protecting Big Cats in Africa

One year ago we were shocked by the news of the death of Cecil the Lion — a 13-year old male who lived in and around Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. His killing remains controversial, but his death sparked much needed global awareness of the plight of lions and other big cats in the wild.

Big cats are in danger. As few as 3,200 tigers, 7,500 snow leopards, 10,000 cheetahs, and 30,000 lions likely remain in the wild. They are victims of habitat loss and fragmentation, loss of their prey base, poaching and illegal trade in their parts, as well as conflicts with humans.

These iconic species are in decline across the globe — and there has never been a more important time to take action.

National Geographic has had a long-standing commitment to protecting big cats. In 2009, we founded the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative (BCI) with Dereck and Beverly Joubert — conservationists, filmmakers, and explorers-in-residence — as a long-term effort to halt the decline of big cats in the wild. BCI supports efforts to save big cats through assessment, on-the-ground conservation, education, and a global public-awareness campaign to shine a light on this issue. Today, BCI has funded over 80 grants across more than 25 countries.

Photo of Dereck Joubert, by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic

We were especially encouraged by the outpouring of support by our donor community — and by 7,000 people who joined that community last summer, many inspired to action by the news of Cecil’s death. Our online community also actively participated in the discussion and shared information about big cats widely.

Aside from making grants, we are also committed to convening thought leaders and encouraging thoughtful debate and conversation about the plight of big cats.

This World Lion Day, coming August 10, the Big Cats Initiative will convene leading big cat conservationists from around the world at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., for a discussion on trophy hunting. This important conversation will look at case studies, evidence, and first-hand accounts of how trophy hunting has impacted big cat populations in Africa and what is needed to assure their survival moving forward. That same evening, co-founders of the Big Cats Initiative, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who have dedicated their lives to the protection and understanding of big cats and other key wildlife species in Africa, will give a public Nat Geo Live lecture about their work.

There are many ways to make a difference. I feel it is important to share the story of these cats — visually and sometimes through heartbreaking photography and videos. Before we can get people to understand and act on the science of a particular issue, it’s critical that we get them to care. I think it’s also important to focus on what’s working.

Photo by Dan Stone/National Geographic

I am proud that we are working with people like our BCI grantee Laly Lichtenfeld, who is working with communities in East Africa to install “living walls” called bomas (pictured left) that protect people and livestock from lions while still preserving the environment — a triple win for people, big cats, and Planet Earth.

And conservation biologist and BCI grantee Shivani Bhalla, whose work creates sustainable co-existence between the Samburu community in Kenya and lions and other large carnivores through her Warrior Watch Program. Through Warrior Watch, Shivani has empowered the warrior age class — young men who spend more time than anyone in wildlife areas — to be involved in wildlife conservation decision making. Now with more than 17 warriors engaged in the program, manhood is proved through wildlife conservation and the entire community is excited and interested in the well being of the lions living in their backyard.

Photo by Michael Nichols/National Geographic

And photographers like Nick Nichols, whose work brings to life the case for protecting these endangered species. Nichols has been close enough to a lion to know that a majestic roar from a male will literally blow back the hair on your head. While out in the field, he captured these roars, as well as incredibly intimate photos of lions’ daily lives. But, he says, what if there comes a day when we rely only on recordings to hear this roar?

It’s time for us all to “cause an uproar” about big cats. In memory of Cecil. In hope for a future where big cat populations soar and the communities who share habitats with them similarly thrive. In time to allow future generations to hear that roar firsthand.

Photo by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic