What Can Save East African Lions from Extinction

African Lion

A hundred years ago more than 200,000 wild lions lived throughout the continent of Africa but according to present day estimates a mere 32,000 lions at best roam freely throughout the forests and grasslands of modern day Africa and there are more wild lions found in the countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania than any of the other countries in this region. Currently classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the wild lion has been ousted from over 75% of its previous habitats on this continent in the last century, making scientists and conservationists alike feel that all species of African lion are well on their way to extinction.

And the wild lion communities in Central and Western Africa have fared the worse. Experts believe that there may be less than 2,000 wild lions left in West and Central Africa, -a mere 6% of the total lion population identified as living in Sub-Saharan Africa as of 2013. This has prompted the IUCN to increase the status of the Central and Western African lion to ‘Regionally Endangered” due to the dramatic drop in its numbers in previous years. There are large areas in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and other places in West Africa where wild lions have not been sighted for decades. In a ‘last minute’ attempt to save the remaining big cats in these countries, a new initiative, The Large Carnivore Initiative for West and Central Africa has been established through a joint effort involving several well-known conservation groups

But not everyone feels that the African lion can be saved without an intense global effort on the part of many western countries as well as the United Nations. In 2011 five animal-rights and conservation groups petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the African lion as an “Endangered Species”, citing that “their numbers were significantly dropping due habitat encroachment by humans, poaching, commercial hunting, and a range of new diseases.”

So it was surprising when Alexander Songorwa, Director of Wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, the highest ranking wildlife official in the country of Tanzania opposed this classification in a letter to the New York Times’ Opinion Page on March of 2013 explaining that the revenues generated from Tanzania’s lion- hunting endeavors were critically responsible in helping them maintain and protect their current population of wild lions as well other endangered wildlife from extinction and would “threaten the country’s capacity to protect its wild lions.”

Seems like trophy hunting is big business in Tanzania worth millions of US dollars in revenue to the country; trophy hunting poured upwards of $75 million US into Tanzania’s economy during the years 2008 to 2011. And American hunters are responsible for 60 % of the trophy-hunting travel reservations made there.. American game hunters play an especially important part in providing the financial capital used to promote wildlife conservation in Tanzania. The US dollars hunters freely spend on expensive “safari packages” and “taxidermist services” help to support game reserves, wildlife management positions, and conservation efforts throughout the country. According to Mr. Songorwa if the wild lion is placed on the endangered species list American Big Game hunters would not be allowed to bring the skins and mounted heads back through US customs once they had arrived home. Seems that displaying your animal ‘trophy’ is a significant part of the hunting experience for these men and woman so Mr. Songorwa should be worried that this group would soon choose to go elsewhere in the world in order to pursue ‘approved’ game.

But Songorwa claims that hunting the Tanzanian wild lion has not decimated its numbers as commonly thought rather it has saved the wild lion population in this country from extinction. He insists that Tanzania is home to the largest population of wild lions in the world. He cites that 16,800 lions, or 40 % percent of all the wild lions in Africa are now living in Tanzania, but 16,800 out of a grand total of the 32,000 lions currently determined by the ICUN makes it more like Tanzania is home to more than 53% of all Africa’s wild lions if his estimates are to be believed. And he goes on the say “that although our hunting system is not perfect we have managed to keep our lion population stable and protected throughout the 26 largest game reserves.”

According to Mr. Songorwa, Tanzania has already allocated one third of its land for national parks, game reserves and wildlife management areas and successfully regulated the hunting of wild lions for decades. Females and adolescent males less than six years of age are never included in the hunted groups and the government recently made it a crime to kill any members of this subset. The killing of older males has also been limited to specific quotas based on the current lion census in each hunting area. And he maintained that stricter laws on animal exports and safari companies have only helped his wildlife service to better protect Tanzania’s wild lions.

In a 2009 study, lion expert Professor Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota and other colleagues in the US, UK and Tanzania found that the rate of trophy hunting of big cats in Tanzania has been consistently too high. He predicted that the populations of lions and leopards in Tanzania would be seriously decimated unless fewer big cats were killed by trophy hunters each year. Tanzania currently allows about 500 lions and 400 leopards per year to be killed for sport across a total area of 300,000km² which equates to 1.67 lions per 1000km² and 1.3 leopards per 1000km²

Although Mr. Songorwa’s message seemed sincere it remains to be seen just how committed his country is to the plight of the wild lions after all. And although the changes to the laws and the hunting exemptions based on age and sex that Dr. Packer had recommended have been made by the Tanzanian Wildlife Service these new regulation have only been in place for the past three years and may be “too little too late” to effect the systemic changes needed to ensure the survival of the lion. Plus there is a better than good chance that these laws and regulations will not be followed in many of the more remote hunting areas because who is around these camps to make them comply? With hunters ready to pay top dollar to guides earning pitifully small wages for the chance to kill any lion at the end of an unproductive “hunting drive” lions of all ages and sizes remain in jeopardy. Tanzania needs to have a plan with “teeth”in place in order to adequately enforce its new laws and regulations before any sustainable change will be seen in the current lion population.

But according to Dr. Packer the government of Tanzania should be commended for seeking to improve their wildlife policies and their trophy- hunting industry and if they follow his specific recommendations the decline in the current population of wild lions from the effects of over- hunting should stop and give rise much larger prides. But that was in 2009 and Packer’s recommendations have not been adhered to all that closely to ensure the results he predicted.

Kenya has always looked at the revenues Tanzania’s claims to collect from trophy- hunting with a jaded eye. Kenya has established many local “Lion Projects” over the years that collect and share lion data across the country and the Maasai, a tribe dependent on their herds of cattle have taken an exceptionally active interest in increasing the lion populations on the Maasia Mara, one of the country’s largest game reserves. The country banned trophy hunting as far back as 1977 and has no intentions of following Tanzania’s lead. In fact, when I have been on safari in Kenya the guides take great pride in telling me that, “Kenya does not tolerate the killing of its wild animals by hunters in any way.”

And by January 20011 the government of Uganda followed suit by requiring the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) to cancel all hunting concessions that had been previously granted to the major wildlife reserves citing concern about the “dwindling numbers” of wild animals in these areas. “Hunting is now prohibited,” Mark Kamanzi, the acting director of UWA told the Ugandan press in 2010 as he reiterated that the profits from sports –hunting were not “substantial, had not stopped poachers, or helped wildlife reserves to better manage their resources”.

Other countries in East Africa are currently facing the same critical decisions in regard to the future of trophy –hunting enterprises within their own countries. Zambia’s Minister of Tourism and Arts, Sylvia T. Masebo, announced in December, 2012, that specific hunting licenses would be suspended indefinitely as they had “been abused to the extent they threatened the country’s animal populations.” And by January, 2013 the Zambian government put laws into effect that banned all lion and leopard hunting, citing that these populations had declined in recent years.

Botswana has taken a similar pro-conservation stance as President Ian Khama pledged that, “The shooting of wild game for sport and trophies is no longer compatible with our commitment to reserve the local fauna. And Botswana has instituted a country-wide ban on sport hunting set to begin on January 1, 2014.

But this spring, 2013 a new report, Conserving large carnivores: dollars and fence, published in “Ecology Letters” by Dr. Craig Packer and other well-known lion specialists from around the world went even farther calling for the African reserves to be fenced in after maintaining that nearly half of Africa’s current wild lion population of 30,000 will die in the next 20-40 years unless drastic conservation measures have been put in place. These scientists recommended the lion must be fenced in to ultimately save it from total extinction.

According to Packer, “We’ve seen fences work and unfenced populations are extremely expensive to maintain.” Using field data from 11 African countries, the study examines the cost of managing fenced in areas versus unfenced habitats, and compared lion populations in both. The report found that in the end conservation costs were lower, and lion population larger, in reserves secured by wildlife-proof fences, as compared to unfenced reserves. Lions in unfenced territories were subjected to a higher degree of danger from their contact with humans.”

Their recommendation makes certain sense but before we exhale is this solution a practical one? The cost of fencing in something as large as a game reserve is expensive and these are third world countries. Many of these same African nations have yet to figure out a way to provide for their own people let alone construct miles of fence line across wildlife reserves just to save one species of big cat. Even if they believed that fencing was the most cost- effective solution in the long run, how would they ever afford the initial monies? According to Parker, “fencing in just the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, would cost upwards of $30 million dollars. And then more money would have to be set aside in order to maintain the structure. At a total perimeter of 17,000 square miles, the yearly bill to manage this fenced-in lion population alone would be another $22 million dollars. and Selous is only one of 26 other national game reserves in Tanzania. And if, as the wildlife specialists tell us- that one pride of lions (around 25 members) need around 100 square miles in territory to maintain an optimum lifestyle wouldn’t every East African wildlife service require an astronomical amount of fencing to do the job properly?

As far as the future of the wild lion in Africa is concerned – it seems to balance precariously on one too many “ifs.” If the laws and regulations concerning the killing of lions and the exportation of illegal lion skins were actually enforced; if people could no longer pay their way out of prosecution and punishment for ignoring wildlife legislation; if government administrators and wildlife guides remained honest in the face of outrageous bribes-more money than they could ever hope to earn in one lifetime and strictly adhered to the hunting quotas; if the citizens in these countries gave the land belonging to the lions back to them and agreed to fence in the amount of land needed to support larger prides; if villagers ceased killing lions in vicious ways simply for acting like the carnivores they are. And lastly, if everyone in the world agreed to back off and give wild lions the room and the support they needed to thrive then just maybe the lion as a species might survive extinction but even as I end this post- I have my doubts.


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