I'm a lion conservationist. Sounds cool, doesn't it? Some people may have no idea what that means. But I'm sure you've all heard about Cecil the lion.
[Cecil the Lion (2002-2015)]
He roars no more. On the second of July, 2015, his life was cut short when he was killed by a trophy hunter.
They say that you can become attached to the animals you study. That was the case for me with Cecil the lion, having known him and studied him for three years in Hwange National Park. I was heartbroken at his death. But the good thing to come out of this tragedy is the attention that the story brought towards the plight of threatened wild animals.
After Cecil's death, I began to ask myself these questions: What if the community that lived next to Cecil the lion was involved in protecting him? What if I had met Cecil when I was 10 years old, instead of 29? Could I or my classmates have changed his fate? Many people are working to stop lions from disappearing, but very few of these people are native to these countries or from the communities most affected. But the communities that live with the lions are the ones best positioned to help lions the most.
Local people should be at the forefront of the solutions to the challenges facing their wildlife. Sometimes, change can only come when the people most affected and impacted take charge. Local communities play an important role in fighting poaching and illegal wildlife trade, which are major threats affecting lions and other wildlife.
Being a black African woman in the sciences, the people I meet are always curious to know if I've always wanted to be a conservationist, because they don't meet a lot of conservationists who look like me. When I was growing up, I didn't even know that wildlife conservation was a career. The first time I saw a wild animal in my home country was when I was 25 years old, even though lions and African wild dogs lived just a few miles away from my home. This is quite common in Zimbabwe, as many people are not exposed to wildlife, even though it's part of our heritage.
When I was growing up, I didn't even know that lions lived in my backyard. When I stepped into Savé Valley Conservancy on a cold winter morning 10 years ago to study African wild dogs for my master's research project, I was mesmerized by the beauty and the tranquility that surrounded me. I felt like I had found my passion and my purpose in life. I made a commitment that day that I was going to dedicate my life to protecting animals.
I think of my childhood school days in Zimbabwe and the other kids I was in school with. Perhaps if we had a chance to interact with wildlife, more of my classmates would be working alongside me now. Unless the local communities want to protect and coexist with wildlife, all conservation efforts might be in vain. These are the communities that live with the wild animals in the same ecosystem and bear the cost of doing so. If they don't have a direct connection or benefit from the animals, they have no reason to want to protect them. And if local communities don't protect their wildlife, no amount of outside intervention will work.
So what needs to be done? Conservationists must prioritize environmental education and help expand the community's skills to conserve their wildlife. Schoolchildren and communities must be taken to national parks, so they get a chance to connect with the wildlife. At every effort and every level, conservation must include the economies of the people who share the land with the wild animals. It is also critical that local conservationists be part of every conservation effort, if we are to build trust and really embed conservation into communities. As local conservationists, we face many hurdles, from outright discrimination to barriers because of cultural norms.
But I will not give up my efforts to bring indigenous communities to this fight for the survival of our planet. I'm asking you to come and stand together with me. We must actively dismantle the hurdles we have created, which are leaving indigenous populations out of conservation efforts.
I've dedicated my life to protecting lions. And I know my neighbor would, too, if only they knew the animals that lived next door to them.