How Cecil the Lion Rescued a Wildlife Program on the Verge of Extinction

Cecil the Lion - H 2015

Cecil the Lion - H 2015

Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit was close to shutting down its anti-poaching team. Then Walter Palmer killed a lion, the group was mentioned on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' and a $1 million donation drive became a roaring success.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

This summer, the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit was close to shutting down its anti-poaching team, part of a $235,000-a-year lions project in Africa, one of its high-profile conservation efforts.

"We are very lean," says WildCRU director David Macdonald of his overall group of about 60 conservation scientists plus field workers, who keep such projects as the anti-poaching effort going.

So after American hunter Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecil, the most famous lion at Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park, WildCRU had to work overtime to deal with unprecedented attention.

"I have been dealing with almost all the media requests myself‎," says Macdonald. "I have done over 60 interviews. I'm not prepared to spend our money on things like that. Every dollar people give to us goes into work it is given for. My colleagues and I have been working from very early in the morning to midnight every day.‎"

A donation drive and a mention on Jimmy Kimmel Live! meant "our website had 4.5 million hits one day and collapsed," says Macdonald, who founded WildCRU in 1986. "We haven't seen anything like this before."

But Macdonald and his team overcame the challenge, and Oxford University's centralized staff helped the unit with fixing the website and processing donations.

And the donations drive at became a roaring success. As of Aug. 14, about 12,000 people collectively had given about £606,000 ($948,000). That's enough to continue and expand WildCRU's anti-poaching work for "at least the next three years,"  Macdonald tells THR.

His team will also use the donations for other work. "We will continue to equip the lions with tracking devices to enable us to find out what the lions are doing," he explains. "We also do a lot of training on the ground and in some cases give Zimbabwean conservation biologists scholarships to come for training at Oxford. And what we had always hoped to do, we are hoping to now expand the work because the lions are of course oblivious to the borders with Botswana and Zambia, so we want to work across the whole landscape."

Macdonald lauds celebrities for their support. “I have been in correspondence with Jimmy Kimmel, who has done a wonderful thing, because on his chat ‎show, he was emotionally very moved,” Macdonald says. “Previously, I didn't know him, but he had taken the trouble ‎to find out that the research done on the lions in the national park in Zimbabwe was being done by my team. He also had taken the trouble to find out that our website was and that people could make donations. We survive, by the way, entirely on financial aid. Jimmy Kimmel did a really wonderful thing by starting all this.”

Others who have helped include actress-model Cara Delevingne, who auctioned a watch with a lion emblem on eBay, and The Lion King animator Aaron Blaise.

"People with very significant influence in society and celebrity status are starting to ask how they can help," says Macdonald. "If these people use their influence and their wealth, that's a wonderful outcome from this story, which had such a sad beginning."

Crossing $1 million in donations would make Macdonald feel like king of the jungle. "My greatest hope at the moment is that some of the people who have genuine wealth and perhaps celebrity status may look at the total and knock us straight over that million and beyond.”

The conservation expert says the outpouring of support shows that people are not just concerned about a single lion, but nature and conservation in a broader sense. "This is a historic moment in the relationship between people and wildlife," says Macdonald. "It will lead to better outcomes and better conservation."

Read more from THR's philanthropy issue below.

Bill Maher: "Unlike Lion Killers, PETA Only Goes After Fair Game" (Guest Column)

How Tom Rothman, Mark Gordon and the Fulfillment Fund Are Improving L.A.'s Graduation Rates

Why Hollywood Loved the Ice Bucket Challenge (Guest Column)

Lady Gaga 'Hunting Ground' Song to Become Campus Rape PSA Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

How 100 Hollywood Moms Are Supporting Foster Kids Who Become Mothers

Matthew Perry on Sobriety and Service: "Two Alcoholics Talking to Each Other is a Big Deal"

Bill Cosby, Donald Sterling and the "Nightmare" Naming-Rights Problem

The Entertainment Industry’s Biggest Givers

Why Kirk and Anne Douglas Are Giving Away Their Fortune

The Hollywood Indies Little League Swings and Connects With At-Risk Youth

Lionel Richie Named MusiCares Person of the Year

How Ted Danson, Cobie Smulders and Mary Steenburgen Are Fighting for the Oceans