Join A Movement: Lion Conservationist Urges UN To Establish World Heritage Species Program

Lion conservationist Brent Stapelkamp has dedicated his life to protecting African wildlife. Now, together with educator and advocate Daniela Relja (Ramsey) and over 12,000 supporters, he’s on a mission to convince UNESCO to do for wildlife what it does for places: create World Heritage Species.

Brent was kind enough to chat with us about his work, the importance of World Heritage Species (WHS), and what we can do to help.

Thanks for joining us, Brent! You’ve done so much for animals in Zimbabwe. Could you update us on your current title?

I am not sure I have a title any more. I left Oxford’s WildCRU [Wildlife Conservation Research Unit] in April after nearly a decade as the Conflict Manager and have now started my own project with my wife. We are working towards a much broader holistic co-existence between wildlife and the people living on the edge of Hwange National Park. We are “The Soft Foot Alliance Trust.”

Cecil the lion, killed by a trophy hunter in 2015

That’s amazing! We look forward to seeing your project expand. What path did you take to get to this point?

I was born in Zimbabwe and raised as a city boy. From the earliest age I knew I was to work in the wildlife/conservation game, and when I left home I started guiding photographic safaris in Hwange National Park. I did that for a while before going to the UK. I worked there for a few years before studying Wildlife Management at Sparsholt College (Winchester) and came home in 2006 with my degree and a determination to study lions. I didn’t take “No” for an answer and plugged Oxford with emails until a position on the Hwange Lion research project opened up, and that was a decade ago.

I have had an incredible time studying lions in the wild. I have darted 88 of them for collars and spent many thousands of hours in their company. I am not an academic, but the data I collected went into the machine at Oxford that produced papers and influenced management decisions on the ground. I was given the task of managing the conflict side of the project and trying to find ways to mitigate the conflict so that lions weren’t killed for eating cattle. I set up the Zimbabwe version of the Lion Guardians with my good friend Lovemore Sibanda (he runs it now) and we called them “The Long Shields.” We have seen over 50% reduction in cattle killed by lions since. I found myself in the centre of the Cecil story and after quite a difficult time, my wife and I decided to go at it alone. We set up our own trust and that is where we are at now.

Tell us about World Heritage Species (WHS), and how it came to be!

Actually, the WHS concept was not my idea. It was originally proposed by chimpanzee expert Toshisada Nishida, but he died before he was able to move forward with the concept. Chris Wold, an environmental law professor was also a huge proponent of the idea and wrote about it extensively. The first I heard of it, however, was from Pieter Kat of LionAid.

The approach was summed up quite well by Will Travers, the President of Born Free:

“My view is we need to regard these species – maybe they should be called World Heritage Species – as a precious part of our common inheritance and we should, as a matter of obligation, provide the resources for their future protection and conservation (and the wild lands they need in order to flourish) regardless of whether we can ‘make them pay their way’.

Just as when, as nations, we invest in admiring and conserving great works of art for the common good of humanity, and are appalled when they are wantonly destroyed, so we should regard the living treasures of our natural world – and make the resources available to so discharge our responsibility for their long term survival.”

Fast forward to Cecil’s death. Daniela contacted me one day after the Cecil story broke and asked, “What can we do about this great concept?” She had heard me mention that the WHS idea was, to me, one of the best ideas I had heard for giving species as important to humans as lions, the status and protection they deserve. She seemed to have liked the idea a lot, and she and the team took it and ran with it.

What are your goals for WHS? What projects are in the works right now?

The central goal for me and World Heritage Species is to see lions defined as the first. I believe that no other species has been so profoundly important to us as humans in an evolutionary sense, cultural sense and economic sense and as such they deserve to have an elevated state of protection and honor. In strictly practical terms, if you are not as emotional about lions as me, I still believe that lions deserve this status because they are a flagship species (meaning they attract attention like no other); they are a keystone species (meaning that their removal from the system — like the wolf of yellowstone — would see the unravelling of the complex ecosystems around us); and they are an umbrella species (meaning that if we have limited funds and time, if we concentrate on managing and conserving lions we will — by nature of their position in the food pyramid — save buffalo, wildebeest, landscapes, and the human cultures associated with these areas).

Image: Scott Presnell/Flickr

What can we do to help you move forward?

We desperately need to get more people motivated about the petition firstly. We have less than 15,000 signatures after a year where a similar one set up to extradite Palmer got 100,000 in a few weeks. We need help on how to clarify what the WHS concept means and how to engage people.

In your opinion, what is one action we can take to help wildlife (and the planet)? (Or, what changes could we make in our daily lives?)

This is a great question and one that very few people are willing to hear the answer to. The world loves to mention the fact that the African population is set to double in the next 40 years, and that that will be the biggest threat to wildlife on the continent. Indeed it is a very scary prospect. But this hides the real crux of the matter. An average American family, for example, with just two children (compared to 6 african children) consumes maybe 20 times more materials and energy in their daily lives [than those in Africa]. My wife and I are by no means perfect, and we too like some comforts, but we have chosen to live off-grid in a house my wife made of mud-bricks. We collect rain water off the roof and pump the rest manually out of the ground. We compost our toilet and use solar to run a small fridge and our lights. We are living among the very people who are trying to make a living amongst elephants, lions, HIV and drought.

There are some very simple ways to help people make their lives easier — and at the same time more efficient — and that is what we bring to the table. Human encroachment into protected areas for limited resources is a major threat to wildlife. We are designing ways that they encroachment is minimized.


One such project is the so called Rocket-stove. It is a clay chimney that burns just small sticks to cook the daily food but it burns efficiently and without smoke. This means that ladies don’t need to venture into the protected areas to chop trees down where they are at risk from wild animals, and their children don’t suffer from the chronic cough that is prevalent in closed spaces with open fires. Less work for the ladies and less damage to the forests.

We as a planet have to realize that this is a closed system. Exponential growth is impossible and the real worry about Africa’s growing population is only if they want what we all have!

Somewhere I read that the world can sustain all 7 billion of us, but at the level of Greek peasants. Now, that sounds pretty good to me, but in order for the poorest of the poor to come up to the level of Greek peasants, the richest of the rich have to come down. That direction is more difficult to stomach.

We all need to settle for a simpler life and have a deeper respect for the sentient beings we share this planet with.

We couldn’t agree more, Brent. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, and for all you do for wildlife!

Thoughts from the World Heritage Species team:

When we talked to the WHS team, they told us that they are passionate about the idea of World Heritage Species and dedicated to raising awareness of its potential. They believe that a commitment by the UN/UNESCO to designate iconic species as world heritage will resonate globally and stimulate awareness worldwide. It would empower publicity, renew political will, generate dialogue, spur new legal frameworks, bring in funding and encourage collaboration. “Perhaps we will even get a UN Wildlife Ambassador!” The United Nations is the only truly worldwide organization. The interconnected nature of the biosphere requires this total international effort. Think about it – the reality is that most wild animals are trans-boundary and require multi-lateral coordination and participation. Everyone needs to work together.

All in all, the inherently positive nature of this mandate is not controversial and could be a refreshing subject of cooperation amongst many member nations and their people. Many fine UN driven programs are already addressing the issues of poverty and sustainable economic development in the developing world, particularly in the rural communities. Aligning World Heritage Species goals and objectives with these existing programs and efforts could give a tremendous lift to both.

There really is something deeply ennobling about the premise – by inscribing a World Heritage Species status, the global community acknowledges that the protection of species of “outstanding universal value” is the responsibility of the whole world and not just certain countries. The world has a vested interest in ensuring that iconic species are protected – but even more – that they are cherished. The wonderful things about the 2015 / 2016 World Heritage Species initiative is that it is a “citizen project”, truly about people coming together to say: “World Heritage Species is an interesting and promising idea. Let’s let the UN know of our interest. Let’s make it reality!” We invite the entire world to join us!

Huge thanks to the World Heritage Species team for all they’re doing to support wildlife!

Want to be part of the World Heritage Species movement? Follow them on Facebook! They also need as many signatures as possible, so consider taking a moment to sign here.

*Featured image: TNS Sofres

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