Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The whole truth please
I love this talk by Dereck and Beverly Joubert (no relation by the way). I am inspired by their passion and in many ways, like Kerasote or McCallum, by their quest to look for beauty and poetry in nature beyond scientific rationality – something that can be hard to justify in the face of orthodoxy. I have a great respect for their hard work; few people can match their dedication and the shear time spent in the field. I have also been an ardent fan of their work from their early magnificent films like Lions of Darkness and Eternal Enemies.
However they left a glaring gap in the threats to big cats - our dinner plates. I am both a hunter and a past lion researcher. I agree that the sustainability of hunting large cats is waning fast and needs to be critically reconsidered. However it is specious to blame hunters and eschew the fact that cats are more threatened by livestock farming than by hunting! Kenya has had no hunting since 1977 yet its lion population has plummeted and some experts believe lions may be extirpated there in the next decade! Pastoralists poisoning water holes, lack of habitat, burgeoning agriculture etc are far greater threats. Its just easy and PC to blame hunters and build 'populist capital' while doing it.
It is difficult to criticize this kind of passion, much like criticizing altruism (e.g. humanitarian aid). It makes one seems particularly unkind and liable to be upbraided for being unnecessarily disagreeable. It’s important to acknowledge that we are on the same side but if we intend to make the world and better place we are obliged to have these debates.
I believe that omitting the issues of habitat loss and encroachment to be particularly unfortunate. Lions (and any large predator, such as wolves or grizzlies) make bad neighbours with subsistence and larger scale commercial agriculture. Family BBQ’s are not made any easier or affordable by lion predation and the Kenyan grown flowers we buy on Valentines day typically don’t come from lion supporting farms. Pastoralists who use cattle as a cultural cornerstone also tend to have little tolerance for large predators and many would rather see them gone, rather that staring in Animal Planet features watched largely in countries that are sans lions. This is not even considering rural living spaces.
Eco-tourism of course has been the saviour-in-waiting for much of Africa’s wilderness and surely has the potential to provide incentive for habitat protection. That of course is the real issue – lion populations are largely the function of habitat for them to live in. Ironically (at least to some) hunting does help protect habitat. Of course a lion that is viewed and photographed can be ‘consumed’ many times as opposed to one that is shot (there is really no such thing as ‘non-consumptive’ tourism is there?). That fact alone makes non-hunting tourism superior. Lions also attract tourists. According to research from the 1990’s in Pilanesberg in South Africa, lion are the biggest wildlife tourism draw card and income generators. However we still need to be critical of the claims of the huge money streams associated with tourism, lest much of that money never really reaches small local communities, wildlife managers, anti-poaching units etc. Of course the same issue exists with hunting incomes. While hunting is inappropriate in some areas, so is eco-tourism. In order to spin as much revenue tourist facilities often require more infrastructure development (power, generators, roads, vehicles, water, waste, sewage...) than a small but relatively high earning hunting camp; hunters typically spend vastly more money per capita. Tourism potential may be more suitable for some lion populations than it is for others, as may hunting income (I stand to be corrected of course).
Therefore we need to approach this issue with some geographic specificity and consider which lion population we are addressing. The approach to meta-populations bears consideration. Some lion populations may allow for a sustainable, limited off-take of large males while other smaller populations may not due to low densities and the associated pride structure issues that would ensue. As habitats for lions have shrunk this of course has become more salient. As mentioned, lion social structure plays a crucial role. Males typically hold tenure in pairs or more and once deposed of this role by younger males they spend their last few post-pride years alone. If one male, from say a tenure pair coalition, is hunted it is unlikely that the remaining single male will hold tenure in the face of competition for his pride (in fact the hunters may as well take both males in short order). There is a way around this and that is to concentrate the off take on post tenure males. Efforts have been made in this direction, for example Whitman and Packer’s guide to aging lions is an attempt to ensure professional hunters can age males in the field and limit their hunts to older males. However I can see that in practice this involves a lot of IF’s that may be extremely challenging to ensure in the field. Craig Packer by the way is one of the doyens of Lion behavioural research.
I used the term ‘populist capital’ above because it is, at risk of showing my bias, very easy to label hunters as a scourge to wildlife. I have plainly stated that I would welcome a deeper critique of lion hunting so am in no way dancing around as a myopic sycophant of the hunting industry. However I remain steadfast in my disappointment at dishing blame on hunters while omitting habitat loss. Showing a shot lion in the throes of dying is unpleasant for many especially when it is used as the centre piece of an obviously incomplete argument. Killing is such a deeply personal, esoteric and context bound phenomenon that even I at times don’t like hunting footage, especially in the presence of others (more later on why I think Youtube is the worst thing that ever happened to even the most honourable of hunting practice).
I agree that iconic fauna are important symbols of the environment, I certainly agree that people increasingly experience nature deficit disorder and finally I wholeheartedly agree that big cats are under serious threats. I would just like to see a more balanced argument on the suite of threats they face, especially when some of the major ones are not the insidiousness of lion murderers but from the folks who produce livestock (and other agricultural) products WE consume while sitting around the BBQ asking if anyone saw that disturbing talk on how hunters are killing off lions...