WildCRU: balancing the needs of conservation and local people

WildCRU has a longstanding specialisation in wild carnivores, and three of its key projects are outlined below.

Saving the Ethiopian wolf from extinction

Fewer than 500 Ethiopian wolves survive in six small, isolated, mountain pockets across Ethiopia. These Afroalpine specialists are threatened by habitat loss, since they share land with people engaged in subsistence farming and grazing of livestock, and by canid-related disease transmitted by domestic dogs. Outbreaks of rabies occur every 5-10 years and mortality rates are extremely high, pushing the wolves each time to the brink of extinction.

Long-term studies led by Claudio Sillero and David Macdonald provided a sound understanding of the wolves’ behavioural ecology and conservation needs. For instance, in collaboration with other scientists they established that direct vaccination of as few as 20–40% of wolves against rabies might offer sufficient protection from the most serious outbreaks. This represented a new approach to vaccination: rather than attempting to eliminate the disease altogether (often impractical in wild populations), targeted vaccination could curtail rabies outbreaks and reduce extinction risk.

The approach has been approved by the Ethiopian authorities and used successfully in outbreaks over the past decade. WildCRU’s research findings have enabled proper strategic planning for the wolf’s conservation, resulting in the establishment of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, spearheaded by Oxford, and the implementation of a national action plan. WildCRU has secured funds to implement effective long-term conservation activities, within which vaccination against rabies has played the key role. Local people have been engaged through education programmes and through a campaign of rabies vaccination in domestic dogs, which helps to protect people and their livestock from rabies.

The attention focussed on the Ethiopian wolf through this research and outreach programme has led to wider benefits for the areas the wolves live in, part of the Eastern Afromontane biodiversity hotspot; the amount of suitable wolf habitat that is protected increased from 40% in 2000 to 87% in 2011.

Reducing conflict between humans and carnivores in Tanzania

Perhaps the most serious threat to large carnivores comes from human-wildlife conflict, particularly in areas near reserves. Tanzania’s Ruaha landscape supports some of the most important large carnivore populations in the world – including over 10% of the world’s remaining wild lions – but work by Amy Dickman revealed that it also had the highest documented level of conflict-related carnivore killing in East Africa.

Amy’s study examined the patterns and causes of this conflict, and determined that it was driven largely by attacks on local livestock, which cost villagers an average of 18% of their income. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that local people saw few benefits from carnivore presence (apart from the fact that young warriors received status and gifts for killing lions), did not understand the reasons for carnivore conservation, and were not using good livestock protection methods

In 2009, Amy established WildCRU’s Ruaha Carnivore Project, with the aim of understanding more about the ecology of Ruaha’s lions, leopards, cheetahs, African wild dogs and spotted hyaenas, and reducing the intensity of human-carnivore conflict. 65% of carnivore attacks occurred in livestock enclosures, so the project trains local villagers in best-practice livestock protection methods, including predator-proofing their enclosures with wire, which has been 100% effective in preventing attacks. Depredation rates have dropped by 70% in the core study area, with loss of income to carnivores cut by nearly half.

However, for long-term conservation, local people need to see real benefits from carnivore presence, which outweigh any remaining costs. Initiatives have therefore been developed in partnership with the community, including a healthcare clinic and access to high-quality, subsidised veterinary medicine. The project conducts extensive education about wildlife conservation, and has worked with partners to establish a ‘Lion Guardians’ programme, where local warriors receive status and income from protecting and monitoring lions rather than killing them.

Since 2011, carnivore killing in the core study area has declined by 80%. The project’s efforts are now being extended across a wider area, with the intention that it will have long-term benefits for both people and predators in one of Africa’s most important but overlooked landscapes.

Lions on the edge in Zimbabwe

The African lion population has declined massively in recent decades owing to persecution, loss of habitat and uncontrolled trophy hunting. A recent estimate suggests that fewer than 35,000 lions survive in 67 lion conservation units comprising only 17% of its historical range. Half of these are thought to live in protected areas.

Properly-regulated trophy hunting of lions generates much-needed income and can help to create ‘buffer zones’ between protected areas and inhabited areas, thus minimising human-lion conflict. It has been assumed that the existence of large reserves where lions are protected will ensure that hunting does not reduce lion populations to critically low levels. However, WildCRU research in western Zimbabwe has challenged this assumption and led to significant changes in the way trophy hunting is managed there.

From 1999 to 2004 Andrew Loveridge and David Macdonald studied the lion population of Hwange National Park (HNP), a large protected reserve, and found that trophy hunting outside the park had an alarming impact on lion numbers and population structure within the park. Each removal of a male lion by hunters on the borders of the park created a ‘territorial vacuum’ which drew males from further inside the protected area into boundary areas, where they too became vulnerable to hunters. This is a well-documented biological phenomenon amongst territorial animals, but this was the first time it had been rigorously recorded in lions.

As a direct and immediate result of the research findings, Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) imposed a complete moratorium on trophy hunting around the park from 2005-08. This enabled the researchers to record an almost exact reversal of the vacuum effect observed between 1999 and 2004. The lion population increased by 50% and the skewed population structure, caused by excessive off-takes of adult males, disappeared.

When lion numbers had recovered and trophy hunting was allowed to restart in 2009, the park authorities adopted the research recommendations on sustainable trophy hunting (a maximum of 10% of the male population per year). The research team continues to monitor the lion population in HNP and is working with Zimparks and other conservation NGOs to implement careful monitoring of trophy hunting off-takes in the country and ensure this remains sustainable.


WildCRU - http://www.wildcru.org/

Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme- http://www.ethiopianwolf.org/

Ruaha Carnivore Project -  http://ruahacarnivoreproject.com/

Lions in Zimbabwe - http://