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To name or not to name, that is the question

Thelma and Louise, two cats with a habit of wandering. Victoria, a big, beautiful female with a relaxed nature. Grumpy, a sleek, dark male with an alarmingly aggressive streak. Reggie, a characteristically inquisitive feline. These are not domestic pets, but just a few of the many wild big cats that we have grown to know and care about during our work. They are also, more formally, known as LF648, LF649, LF302, AM115 and LM744. Like every other field conservationist we know, we give our study animals numbers, but they often end up with names as well. Naming wild animals brings both costs and benefits, and can stir up controversy. Here, we explain our reasons for naming some of our study animals, and the positive and negative impacts we have found it can have on conservation.

Names are more intuitive than numbers

The first reason for naming animals is that scientists are humans. Rather than wondering how the home range of LF278 compares to those of LM558 and LM401, it is much more intuitive for our team to discuss how the movements of Dawn, Chalisa and Felix are affected by their pride dynamics (in this case, being a mother with cubs, a dispersing male and an young coalition male). Studying animals over any length of time creates a bond, and you notice their characters, and start using names which reflect their individuality and appearance. The names often aren’t that imaginative. There was Bluey, a lioness with an eye injury, turning it milky blue; Bahati (‘lucky’ in Swahili), a cheetah who had survived a lion attack despite substantial injuries; and Spot, a particularly imaginatively-named leopard. These tend to be internal, informal nicknames, and reflect the fact that scientists are not automatons. We notice and value the differences between individual animals in both looks and character. We bond with them, care about them, and are affected when they are killed. That should surprise no-one, as it is the passion for these animals that drove us into this field, and which drives us to fight for their conservation every day.

Onca, a leopard named for its jaguar-like spots
Onca, a leopard named for its jaguar-like spots

In addition, in many places we are not the only ones studying these animals. Conservancy staff, safari guides and others are often strongly invested in the animals around them, and have often already named them. For example, Onca was a leopard that guides had noticed had jaguar-style rosettes, while Grumpy was named because of his tendency to chase tourist cars. While we still give these animals numbers for our records and papers, we respect the names given by others, and often use them ourselves.

Naming animals can have positive conservation effects in the field

The above mentioned naming is relatively unintentional, driven by familiarity of us or others with particular animals. But we also intentionally use animal naming to improve conservation outcomes. It is a very human trait that people tend to bond more with a named, known animal – especially one we have named ourselves - than one with a more sterile identifier, such as a number, allocated by someone else. Naming increases attachment, empathy and direct connection with an animal. In our study sites, conflict with people is one of the primary conservation threats. Animals like lions and leopards are dangerous and difficult to live alongside. People recognise their beauty, but still justifiably fear them, and have often never really thought of them as individuals with intrinsic value. We have spent decades trying to improve human-wildlife coexistence in those places, and use multiple approaches to build more connections with wildlife, including Park visits and conservation-themed film nights. Bonding with individual animals is one approach that can help with those connections.

AM342, a.k.a Kali

Getting local people (whether conservancy managers, villagers or others) to name an animal gives a particularly meaningful connection, one that often holds for weeks, months, or years of coexistence afterwards. AM342 was one such lion. His collaring revealed that he was a problem animal who attacked livestock relatively regularly. Local warriors helped track him and came to know him as Kali (meaning fierce). Despite the seemingly negative moniker, the warriors discussing him by name in village meetings seemed to give him more status, and people seemed more tolerant than they might have been with an unknown animal they were disconnected from. From our experiences, naming animals can certainly have positives in the field. It builds empathy, which is a vital tool in rural African communities where empathy levels for dangerous animals are often understandably low, far outweighed by more pressing concerns like protection of people’s livestock and families.

Furaha, whose Swahili name means ‘joy’ in English
Furaha, whose Swahili name means ‘joy’ in English

Individuals matter, populations even more

Individuals clearly matter, and we care about all of them. As a population represents a large number of those individuals, it holds that we should care about populations even more – and we do. But while this makes sense to us as conservationists, our priorities increasingly seem misaligned with much of the general public, particularly in Europe and North America. We developed our approaches, including naming some of our study animals, based on needs in the field, far before we had to think about how they would be viewed from behind faraway computer screens. But so much of conservation attention and debate now occurs far from the bush, particularly on social media. There, the needs and opinions of keyboard warriors appear to matter more to decision-makers than the needs and opinions of the actual warriors trying to protect their livelihoods from large carnivores. That causes a conundrum. On social media, and in similar environments far from the reality and complexities of conservation, strong attachments to the stories of individual animals can potentially lead to harm.

In an international context, naming sometimes risks negative conservation effects

Unfortunately, just as it is human to connect with individual animals, it is also very human to find it much harder to expand that connection to the many individuals which make up a population, let alone the other animals, plants and biodiversity in the landscapes supporting them. That is where harm can come in. Particularly amongst Western audiences, levels of empathy for dangerous wild animals are already extremely high. Frequently, people fail to realise that as beautiful and impressive as big cats are, they are also extremely challenging to conserve, and they can and do destroy lives and livelihoods. Without the tempering influence of context and lived experience with dangerous wildlife, the stories and bonds forged with known individuals start to be elevated, often beyond the needs of wildlife populations, or worse, over the needs and rights of local people. This has been seen time and time again. The killings of known individual animals, such as Cecil the lion, Avni the tigress, Voortrekker the elephant, or Rafiki the gorilla, create intense media and public interest, and often a clamour for knee-jerk responses and policies, such as not killing man-eating animals, or using lethal force against poachers. All too often, these are simplistic measures which fail to consider conservation realities and exacerbate division between the international public and local people living with wildlife, and therefore carry major risks for long-term conservation.

Animals like elephants are often viewed very differently by Europeans and North Americans than they are by people living alongside them

The way forward

Some people believe that naming an animal gives it more importance, and that people have more responsibility towards named animals, as it assigns them some kind of personhood and elevated value. That may have some philosophical value, but from a conservation perspective, we strongly disagree. Despite the utility that names can have for local conservation, it shouldn’t be the named ones, the known ones, which we prioritise. We shouldn’t focus so much on the lions which are regularly photographed, whose lineages and history are fully documented, whose habits are known and whose movements can be predicted. Rather, we should be focused more on the fate of the unnamed, unknown ones. The ones who are glimpsed for an intoxicating moment, and then who slink back into the bush, never to be spotted again. It is those – whose very elusiveness and anonymity symbolises wilderness – which we should strive to prioritise. Few people name trees: we have never heard of a bush, a gulley, a lilac-breasted roller or an agama lizard being named. But every part of the landscape is valuable, and it takes all of it to support Kali, Victoria, Grumpy, and the countless thousands of animals that none of us will ever know or even see.

As with everything in conservation, even this simple topic is more complicated than it might first appear. We certainly don’t have all the answers, and our strategies change over time as we consider different risks and benefits. For now, we at Lion Landscapes have decided that we will use names locally where that has benefit, but will not use individual names internationally, to try to reduce some of the risks above. Instead, we will refer to the names of the relevant prides or places associated with these animals, to try to instil more connection with those wider entities. We hope that may encourage people to remember that any wild individual is part of a population and supporting ecosystem, without which it would have no future. Focusing on individuals is easier for us all, but unless we widen our view to see the intricate web of biodiversity and community needs supporting those individuals, then we will be doing conservation a disservice. And while naming can increase both empathy and revenue, if that goes from being something useful to something harmful, then it is something that we should all consider and try to tackle in this new, complex landscape of modern conservation.

Unnamed lion, tree, bush, gulley, lilac-breasted roller and agama lizard
Unnamed lion, tree, bush, gulley, lilac-breasted roller and agama lizard

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