In the last 20 years, the population of lions has been cut in half and the animals have gone extinct in about 33 countries, researcher Amy Dickman said during an appearance Monday night at the St. Louis Zoo.
There are only about 10 lion strongholds left in the world, Dickman said. In total, there are fewer lions than rhinos, with a population of only about 20,000.
Dickman is a senior research fellow at Oxford University and has worked on big cat conservation for nearly 20 years. “I’ve always been passionate about big cats,” she said.
In an effort to develop a community-based lion conservation initiative, she established the Ruaha Carnivore Project. Ruaha is a national park in the East Africa country of Tanzania, a nation that supports a tenth of the world’s lions as well as globally significant populations of other threatened carnivores.
The Ruaha landscape has traditionally had a high rate of lion and other big animal killings. The challenge for Dickman was to make a community where many people live on less than $2 a day and have limited access to clean water, food, education and medical care take an interest in wildlife conservation.
Dickman learned that, for local men, killing big cats translated into wealth and status.
The Ruaha Carnivore Project used several tactics to reduce the killings, such as providing locals with guard dogs that protect the cattle. The project also provided the community with various other benefits, such as pairing village schools with U.S. and U.K. institutions. It established a village clinic, and it educated the local population on wildlife preservation.
Now villagers who maintain the wildlife cameras planted in the area earn points that can be traded for additional benefits.
Dickman said that those who are literate have gained status in the community, rather than those who are lion hunters.
One of the final steps Dickman and her team took was to expose villagers to wildlife in non-threatening situations.
“The No. 1 thing we hear from people is, ‘I didn’t know lions could be gentle,’” Dickman said, noting that her project’s efforts has resulted in a 80 percent reduction in carnivore killings.
Dickman’s lecture by coincidence fell on the same day that a Zimbabwean official said that nation is no longer pressing for the extradition of Walter Palmer, an American dentist who killed a well-known lion called Cecil.
Palmer can now safely return to Zimbabwe as a “tourist” because he had not broken the southern African country’s hunting laws, Environment, Water and Climate Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri told reporters in Harare on Monday. Zimbabwe’s police and the National Prosecuting Authority had cleared Palmer of wrongdoing, she said.
Dickman did not bring up Palmer or the death of Cecil in her lecture.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.