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Billionaire Who Funds Cecil The Lion’s Researchers Speaks Out, Offers Matching Grant

August 4, 2015

The killing of Zimbabwe’s beloved Cecil the lion by American dentist Walter J. Palmer sparked an international outcry against hunting big cats and created a wave of support for their conservation.

Researchers at Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Unit, or WildCRU, who had been tracking Cecil since 2008, say on their website that they have received almost $470,000 since his death. Aiming to increase this number even further, billionaire philanthropist Tom Kaplan and his wife Daphne, longtime supporters of Big Cat conservation, announced on Friday that they would pledge to match donations up to $100,000.

In a statement on the WildCRU website, Kaplan said the pledge would go towards helping the organization reach their target of half a million pounds.

Kaplan in the field with a collared leopard in South Africa.

A longtime supporter of animal conservation, Kaplan created his charity Panthera in 2006 to help protect the world’s largest and most endangered cats including tigers, lions, jaguars and snow leopards. The study that WildCRU is doing, of which Cecil was a part, is actually being done in partnership with Panthera, which endowed it, according to Kaplan. It’s part of their ‘Leonardo Project.’

“We have to seize this moment where we can all make a difference. Jimmy Kimmel nailed it: If the tragic, illegal, death of Cecil can lead to the saving of many more lions, then some good can come from tragedy,” said Kaplan. (Talk show host Kimmel had lambasted the hunter Palmer and suggested viewers donate to WildCRU as a way to have some good come out of the “vomitous: act.”)

Kaplan told Forbes that while he doesn’t like to think of Cecil’s death as a sacrifice, the level of awareness for lion conservation far exceeds where it was a few weeks ago.

“For us, Cecil was like part of the family, so we don’t take this lightly,” Kaplan said. “Cecil became a symbol while he was alive, but in death, he may very well have become the iconic representation of the precarious plight of his species.”

Kaplan said it’s important for people to understand just how imperiled these big cats are.”Lions, unlike some of the other big cats, allow themselves to be seen, so people make the assumption that they’re in good shape but they’re not,” Kaplan said. “The lion will be one of those animals that people will be shocked to find out is endangered.”

(The World Wildlife Fund does not include lions on its list of endangered species. Asian lions do appear as endangered on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website and African lions are listed as ’vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation.)

WildCRU director David MacDonald told Forbes it was Jimmy Kimmel’s plea to viewers on his show Tuesday night that directed people to donate on the WildCRU website.

“[Kimmel] catalyzed this and it’s been simply heartwarming that it’s happened,” MacDonald said. “Today, as the donations have been streaming in, which will allow us to do more and better scientific conservation work, Tom and Daphne Kaplan have made a wonderful gesture to further catalyze the gesture made by Jimmy Kimmel.”

Kaplan said Kimmel “may have had the biggest impact on lion conservation of anyone in the entertainment world.” Kaplan added that by using his platform the late night host’s voice “became a roar.”

Kaplan’s passion for conservation goes way back. In a 2013 article in Forbes Life, he described how, as a child growing up in Florida, he saved a snake from a group of kids who were trying to kill it. He also used to track bobcats for fun.

He recalled Friday that his first foray into philanthropy was as a child asking people to donate to ‘Project Tiger’ before they were allowed to enter his house.


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