The surprising thing about Cecil is not how he died – around 600 lions die every year at the hands of trophy hunters – but at the reaction to this particular killing. As details of Cecil’s grisly – and possibly illegal – death leaked out, the news blew up on social media and in the press, surprising conservationists who see this kind of thing with depressing regularity. On 2 July of last year, Cecil the Lion – a 13-year-old, black-maned, pride-leader – was killed by trophy hunter Walter Palmer in Zimbabwe.
Cecil the Lion became more famous in death than he ever was in life. Yet while many expressed outrage and condemnation, Daniela Relja – an educator and advocate from Barrie, Canada – was not content to leave it at that. She turned her anger and sadness over the killing of Cecil into an initiative to make lions the first ever Unesco World Heritage Species.
“A commitment by Unesco to designate iconic species as [a part of our] world heritage will resonate globally and stimulate awareness worldwide,” she said, noting that current conservation mechanisms have not proven up to the task of saving iconic species from a multitude of threats.
A new idea is needed.
The big idea
What do the Great Barrier Reef, the Okavango Delta and the Grand Canyon have in common? While they may lie on different continents and represent startlingly distinct environments, each benefits greatly from being listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Since 1972, Unesco’s immensely successful programme has given special attention and protection to more than 1,000 treasured sites – both cultural and natural – around the world.
What is the inherent value of our wildlife? What is the value of having our lions, rhinos, elephants and tigers?
Now, in the wake of daily news about beloved species being wiped out for profit, wildlife-activists are asking a simple, yet profound question: could Unesco provide similar aid to our planet’s wildlife heritage?
“In the same way that Unesco recognises sites as belonging to the world’s people, so too should certain species that have been a critical part of what it is to be human,” said Brent Stapelkamp, a lion conservationist who worked with Cecil and a supporter of the new initiative to create a Unesco World Heritage Species programme.
The idea has actually been percolating in conservation circles for over a decade, but has yet to get off the ground. It was originally developed by renowned chimpanzee-expert, Toshisada Nishida, who wanted to see humankind’s closest relative as the first World Heritage Species. But Nishida died in 2011 without achieving his goal.
Today, his mission has been taken up by a small yet passionate group of activists from around the world who have issued a petition to Unesco to finally enact a new program for the world’s increasingly embattled wildlife.
“If Unesco deems the loss of our heritage sites and monuments as an irreparable harm to our collective heritage, why not apply the same principle to our wildlife?” said the initiative’s founder, Relja. “The loss of lions, for example, would be an irreparable harm. Imagine the world where lions are a memory!”
Relja said the programme would give the world a new way to formally value wildlife.
“Presently our wildlife acquires value through exploitation – sold, hunted, exhibited … bred for profit.”
She said, however, that the World Heritage Species concept could change how we view the Earth’s other species.
“With World Heritage Species the question becomes: what is the social and cultural significance of our lions, tigers, whales? What is their value to the humanity? What is their legacy value? Of course, the foundational question is: what is the inherent value of our wildlife? What is the value of having our lions, rhinos, elephants and tigers – for the simple reason of there being lions, rhinos, elephants and tigers.”
In memoriam: starting with lions
While Toshisada Nishida’s idea was focused on kick-starting the programme around great apes, the most recent resurrection of his original concept began with Cecil’s untimely death.
“Cecil is our special mascot and inspiration. Out of the tragedy of his demise a stronger global awareness emerged,” Relja said, pointing to hugely popular online communities devoted to the late lion.
Despite the supposed ‘novelty’ of the story, Cecil’s death was actually deeply emblematic of the lion’s overall recent history. As true apex predators, lions may have once been the kings of Africa, but they have been deposed by centuries of habitat loss, prey decline, conflict with local people, and, yes, trophy hunting. Surveys suggest that only some 15,000-35,000 lions survive today in the wild (less than the human population of Canterbury). This a decline of around 75% in just 50 years and research last year predicted the population could be cut in half again over the next 30 years.
“The lion is arguably the most important animal to our collective human culture with images, songs, references and totems found across the globe,” Stapelkamp said, who pointed to important similarities between Homo sapiens sapiens and Panthera leo.
“We are about the same age in terms of evolutionary history and originate from the same place.”
According to Stapelkamp, it’s possible lions and humans actually came up in the world together.
I believe that once listed or defined as a World Heritage Species, lions will then belong to the world.
“It may be a bit of a romantic notion but imagine if the reason we stand upright is because when we came down from the trees we needed to stand up to see our new competitor!”
At the apex of their power, lions roamed nearly the entire continent of Africa, a broad swathe of southeastern Europe, the coasts of the Middle East and almost the entire Indian subcontinent. They hunted in the plains of Greece, slept in the cold Atlas Mountains, plodded along the shores of the Red Sea and competed with tigers in the savannas of India.
That world is gone. Today, they are extinct from Europe and the Middle East; only a single population survives in India and even in Africa they persist only in small, disconnected, harassed populations. One subspecies, the Barbary lion, is extinct while another, the West African lion, is on the edge of obliteration.
The story of the lion proves that even one of the most charismatic and recognisable animals on the planet can remain haphazardly and poorly protected.
“I believe that once listed or defined as a World Heritage Species, lions will then belong to the world,” Stapelkamp said. “Third world countries that are home to lions are then not the only ones responsible for their conservation costs.”
Stapelkamp thinks the end of trophy hunting for lions is in sight. But when that happens, he said, there must be another way for lion-range countries to ensure funds for managing Africa’s deposed king.
Other contenders: charisma or evolution
But lions won’t be the end of it. The group said they envision dozens of species falling under the World Heritage Species programme including, but hardly limited to, other big cats, great apes, whales, marine turtles, elephants, rhinos and polar bears. Greater protection for charismatic animals, they note, would also help protect smaller, less charismatic species by enabling better protection of habitat and more conservation funds overall.
“The call is to crown the King first and then take care of the rest of the Kingdom,” said Relja who added that “the senselessness of Cecil’s killing is an easily understood symbol across society at large.”
Not everyone agrees that lions should be the first World Heritage species, however, or even that lions belong under the list. While Corey Bradshaw enthusiastically supports the idea of establishing World Heritage Species, he believes the designation should be reserved for species that are evolutionarily distinct or ecologically vital.
“What makes [lions] any different to any other threatened species? If we merely brand other pandas as pandas, I very much doubt we’ll have any real change given the new status,” said the conservation ecologist with the University of Adelaide. “It is for this reason that I think the entire approach needs to be turned on its head.”
Bradshaw would like to see the World Heritage Species largely bestowed on species that are evolutionarily distinct – ie, have few close living relatives. In a blog post on the concept, he pointed to such wonderfully bizarre and evolutionarily deep species as the horseshoe crab, the long-beaked echidna, and Peripatus velvet worms.
Such species are decidedly uncharismatic and, as such, little known by scientists and largely ignored by the general public. These forgotten species – which incorporate the vast, vast bulk of the world’s biodiversity – could gain far more from World Heritage designation than lions, according to Bradshaw.
However, there may be a way out of the debate. Currently, the Unesco lists sites under two wholly different categories: cultural and natural. The Taj Mahal is a cultural Unesco site, the Galapagos Islands a natural site, while St Kilda in Scotland is both a cultural and natural. Why couldn’t World Heritage Species follow the same path? Why not a category for cultural species, including standouts like lions, wolves, dolphins, and penguins. And then another category for evolutionary distinct species – species that if we lose we lose millions of years of bizarre evolutionary traits – such as solenodons, giant ibis, and the purple frog.
“Listing a lungfish, a platypus or a strange deep-sea fish might just enfold many more similar species into the limelight,” Bradshaw said.
How would it help?
Much of what World Heritage status brings to its select sites is immeasurable, but undeniable. Places designated as World Heritage Sites tend to see increased visitation, more press coverage and better protection from governments. Unesco also gives grants to developing countries to help preserve these sites.
World Heritage Sites have become powerful enough that “even the most right-wing, anti-conservation governments think twice about challenging their status,” Bradshaw said. As an example he points to his native Australia whose conservative government has faced considerable pressure from Unesco over its protection, or lack-thereof, of the Great Barrier Reef.
Proponents of World Heritage Species said the hypothetical programme could do the same for species. Such a designation could bring increased awareness and media attention to the listed species, boost eco-tourism in the species’ range and, perhaps most importantly, add significant social and political pressure for improved conservation measures.
“The World Heritage Species idea approaches conservation as a global problem requiring a global solution,” Relja said. “Although that sounds obvious, it is relatively new thinking. The practical measures for conservation to date have mostly been local or regional. The involvement of the world’s governing body would take it to the next level.”
She said the programme would by no means replace such global protocols as the Convention on Biological Diversity or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), but would be complementary.
“The biological diversity mandate is too broad in scope and in some ways conceptually abstract to be directly applicable to a specific species. World Heritage Species resolves this dilemma by bringing it back to the actual species. The discussion becomes about our lions, our elephants, our tigers, our rhinos, our whales.”
But whatever benefits such a programme could theoretically accrue, one big question remains: can it be done?
Chris Wold, a law professor at the Lewis and Clark Law School, agreed with activists that something “new” is needed on the international stage in order for the world to “address the full range of impacts facing some species.”
But he said, “the current problem is that Unesco does not have a mandate, either in its constitution or in the World Heritage Convention, to focus on species.”
Still, Wold, who wrote a discussion paper on the idea in 2005, said this doesn’t mean it’s impossible. He outlined a few possible avenues to make World Heritage Species a reality. One would be to have nations sign a new international treaty under Unesco, although getting nations to agree to a new treaty is never easy. Another possibility, which Wold proposed in his paper, would be to circumvent a new treaty and simply have Unesco develop criteria for what a World Heritage Species would look like; protections for this species could then fall under other, already-existing treaties and laws. A third way would be to amend Unesco’s constitution to allow it to establish a World Heritage Species programme, again avoiding the difficult task of developing a wholly new treaty.
But for all the hope and optimism among supporters, the battle remains uphill.
Mechtild Rössler, the current director of the World Heritage Centre, said she didn’t see the need for a World Heritage Species programme, arguing that Unesco already plays a major role in protecting species by safeguarding habitat under its World Heritage Sites.
Adding any new protocol to Unesco, she said, “would be a costly and lengthy exercise without any concrete outcome … at a time when funds for conservation are diminishing.”
But it’s unlikely the idea – which has been supported by a number of conservation groups in recent months – will disappear anytime soon. In a time where existing conservation organizations are increasingly overwhelmed, where wildlife news is almost always depressing, where the war against extinction is being lost on a daily basis – something new is needed, according to activists: a sea change, a transformation from the seemingly intractable problem of overexploitation to a love for our collective wild heritage. In a time where wildlife populations are being wiped off the Earth due to far more than just habitat destruction – we are entering an age of emptiness, empty forests, empty seas, empty savannas – activists see a need to go beyond the norm.
And, the idea of the World Heritage Species has a symbolic and optimistic power that is hard to deny.
“[The] World Heritage Species [concept] casts each and every one of us a steward of something greater than a single individual and extends the time horizon beyond our lifetime,” Relja said. “The responsibility of protection now rests in our hands and extends to the entire human family and the future generations.”
Late in the evening of 1 July last year, Cecil the lion – a male in the prime-of-his life and the head of a family – was allegedly lured outside the protection of Hwange National Park with an elephant carcass as bait. Once outside the sanctuary, Walter Palmer shot him with an arrow from a compound bow. Although desperately wounded, Cecil escaped. The hunter and his guides then tracked the bleeding male for some 11 hours before they finally found him just after dawn the next day and finished him off.
Cecil the lion was skinned, beheaded and – aside from his trophy head – left to rot.
Activists hope that’s not the end of Cecil’s story; they hope something good can come out of all of this. Maybe – just maybe – Cecil can become the beginning of a better future for our wild heritage.