Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lions in the news. Again.

Lion tranquilizing and re-location 1997
(yes, thats me, in my 'youth')
This past couple of weeks has seen a number of notices and reports land in my inbox regarding the petition supported by various animal rights groups to list the African lion as an endangered species in the USA. With an endangered species status, American hunters could no longer legally import lion parts they have collected in Africa. Americans import more than half of all lions hunted in Africa. The motivation behind the petition is that with the overall rapid decline in lion numbers, preventing Americans from importing legally hunted lions will make noticeable inroads into slowing the decline of wild lions.


Subsequent to this action was the rash of articles covering the petition and its goals, such as those from the New York Times, Scientific American and the Guardian, to name a few that I received. The irksome part of all of this is the parochialism of both the petition and the associated environmental journalism. There is scant mention of the really serious issues of habitat loss and land use conflicts that are the elephant in the room regarding threats to lions. If hunting was their greatest threat then lions in both Kenya and Malawi, for example, would be thriving – they are not!

Before I continue, let me make clear what I have stated earlier in this blog. I am not blindly advocating the status quo hunting of African lions. If there is a conservation imperative that requires a significant quota reduction or moratorium on hunting in certain lion populations, then I would be first in line to support to it. I also have no desire to hunt a lion - ironically I used to when I was working around them. It is not my goal to come across as a sycophant of the safari industry BUT I am sceptical that the larger wild populations can’t sustain a limited take off, even if the quotas are further limited where necessary. For example Mesochina et al (2010) report Tanzania’s lion population to be estimated at over 16000, the largest of any African country. I am sure the larger sub-populations could sustain a very limited off take of older males. In the report the authors state “Tanzania hosts the largest lion population in Africa and is the first country in terms of lion trophy hunting with around 200 free ranging lions legally harvested per year. This figure remains far smaller than the number of lions illegally killed for various reasons such as ritual killing, snaring for bushmeat, retaliation in reaction to human casualties and livestock losses, etc. Because lions largely range outside protected areas, human lion conflicts are of great concern in this country, especially in central and southern Tanzania. Indeed, illegal killing of lions and habitat loss appear to most informants as the main threats to lion conservation.”

Of course in areas with smaller lion populations hunting may not be an option. I don’t see the point of a wholesale ban or the supposed benefit of losing the potential conservation income from lion hunting, even if it is with drastically reduced quotas. Nor do I see the benefit of ceasing all problem animal hunts which can aid the rural poor. More to the point, is stopping Americans from importing trophies really going to curb the alarming decline in wild lions? The article in the Guardian quotes Dr. Luke Hunter from Panthera as saying "If you remove hunting, the very real risk is that you force African governments to generate revenue from that land and the obvious thing is cattle and crops which just wipe out habitats." Here is someone who has committed his academic and field career to big cats, including lions (I was fortunate enough to spend time with Dr. Hunter doing lion research in 1997). As a lion conservation expert he is opposed to this petition. You can read why here.

The oft mentioned claim about effectively killing more lions than just the male that is hunted, because of the resulting infanticide, needs some unpacking. If a dominant male lion coalition loses tenure of a pride the new dominant males that assume pride male status do indeed kill off younger lions in order to stimulate oestrus in the lionesses so that they can breed them. This can and does happen when a dominant male coalition is broken from the hunting of one male, but it also happens naturally. However it does not have to happen with hunted males as it is possible to select older post-tenure males that no-longer have a pride of females. This is the purpose of Whitman and Packer’s publication ‘The Hunters Guide to Aging Lions in Eastern and Southern Africa’. I can see how this can be tough for PH's to implement in the field, but it’s entirely possible.

One of my issues with this is that instead of trying to ban trophy imports, organizations like HSUS, IFAW, Humane Society International, Born Free, Defenders of Wildlife and their ilk should use their funds to buy conservation easements or endowments to protect habitat and promote land stewardship, improve small scale African agriculture to reduce the spread of inefficient plots or think of innovative ways to manage lion-livestock conflicts. In other words more effective lion conservation measures. Punishing American hunters serves to suit their agendas more than it does to conserve wild lions! The realities on the ground far outstrip the importance of stopping legal hunting, although I reiterate – a review lion hunting biology and policy (as is happening) is key and not something I see receiving too much opposition anyway. There are many committed conservationists like those in Conservation Force or the African Lion Working Group who are not in favour of wholesale bans on all lion hunting and these are the organizations we should be getting our information from…

The petition for this ban smacks of eco-imperialism, that these groups have assumed the right to determine the future of people involved in this issue from the rural poor in Africa through to hunters. Ironically the real conservation work and knowledge goes on by those far more qualified to do so.

The other irksome part of this debacle is the quality of the reports covering this issue. It seems to me that many of these (and there are many, just Google it), are simply a rehash of the last article. Not much critical thought or research goes into many of these pieces unfortunately, and a well-rounded report is often eschewed for the ease of shocking and sympathy engendering details. The other thing I believe happens is that they are written with a populist angle. It easier to slag off ‘an American with a gun’ and in so doing to garner agreement with a largely westernised urban audience; almost like a form of cultural path-dependency. It’s much tougher for a foreign journalist to write about African’s who poison water holes or snare lions that eat their cattle. Saying that in some circles makes you sound like a neo-colonialist who cares more about the lions you saw on your safari holiday than the poor people you drove past. It doesn’t have to at all, the reality remains, it’s not only the fault of poor African’s, what do we expect them to do? We should be able to write these truths openly. The solution is critical and the causes legion, but isn’t banning Americans from importing lion products a little tangential to the issue…?

©Brian Joubert

1 comment:

  1. First, Brian, you are such an amazing writer. I agree with all of your points. The two most important as I see it are the fact that having a sport/trophy hunt of lions gives them value when it comes to the government's management decisions. And secondly, these environmental organizations are using this issue more to promote an anti-hunting agenda than to actually do anything effective to conserve lion populations.

    Thanks again for your insightful and eloquent thoughts.

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