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The African lion (Panthera leo) is Africa’s largest carnivore. Historically the apex predator of the savannahs of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa, the lion is of great ecological importance. Further, its dominating status over such a vast region which has lead to global popularity and its historical tribal importance underline the lion’s cultural and social value.
However, lack of funding for wildlife management and conservation efforts, habitat fragmentation and loss of prey due to an increasing human population, retaliatory killing and, arguably, trophy hunting, have put pressures on the lion populations, causing dangerous declines in numbers over recent decades (Bauer et al. 2015, Creel et al. 2016). The IUCN Red List (2014) officially lists P. leo as Vulnerable, with an estimated population size of only 22,000-39,000 mature lions. Moreover, recent research shows that lion populations are mostly still decreasing (Bauer et al. 2015). Given the importance of the species, these declines are alarming.
The purpose of this essay is to discuss whether the controversial issue of trophy hunting is beneficial for lion conservation. The focus is on Kenya and Tanzania; two countries with stark differences in hunting laws. Tanzania exported an average of 243 trophies per year between 1996 and 2006, which was the highest rate in the world, and has an extremely large lion population (although lack of available data makes details unclear; Bauer et al. 2015; Brink et al. 2016). In comparison, trophy hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977 (Whitman et al. 2007; National Geographic 2017). Studying the impact of each country’s conservation policies on lion populations will allow us to conclude on the benefits of trophy hunting, and possibly suggest modifications.
Despite a lack of consistent surveys in Tanzania, vast areas of suitable habitat for lions such as Serengeti National Park are pristine, and populations are thought to still be large (Brink et al. 2016). Further, recent research shows lion populations in several important areas in Tanzania have grown. For example, the growth rates in Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater were 1.02 0.02 and 1 0.03, respectively (greater than 1 is growth, less than 1 is decline; Bauer et al. 2015). Thus, hunting policies seem to have been at least sustainable in several crucial areas for lions. Note, however, that growth rates for important areas in Kenya have also been strong (1.16 0.12 for Mbirikani and 1.1 0.1 for Ol Pejeta), and Katavi (which is a National Park in Tanzania) had the worst growth rate (0.67 0.11) out of all surveyed areas in East Africa (Bauer et al. 2015), which undermines the conservation benefits of Tanzania’s trophy hunting scheme.
However, model simulations by Whitman et al. (2004) showed that, if hunting was restricted to males of over 5 or 6 years of age, then local extinction never occurred. But if hunting of males as young as 3 or 4 years old was allowed, local extinction occurred in some simulations. Hence, hunting can be sustainable if focus is put onto the age of lions rather than quotas, which was shown by the model to have negligible effect (Whitman et al. 2004). Factoring in a significant environmental disturbance to the population (such as disease) did not change these outcomes (Whitman et al. 2007), demonstrating the robustness of hunting if carried out carefully. The reason for the choice of older males is the risk of infanticide; Fathers must raise their young, and if they are killed while their cubs are still being reared then lions who take over the pride will likely kill the cubs (Whitman et al. 2007), quickly diminishing the population.
Since hunting provides a commercial incentive to tolerate lion populations, if done sustainably, it has obvious conservation benefits. The evidence above shows that age restriction is the key to sustainability, and Whitman et al. (2004) outlines that nose pigmentation can be used simply and easily to tell a lion’s age before it is killed. However, there may be some variability, so restricting age requirements to 7 or 8 years should provide a safeguard against this. Coupled with the fact Tanzania’s lion population is much greater and healthier than Kenya’s (2,000 lions in Kenya compared to over 16,000 in Tanzania, estimated; Kenya Wildlife Service 2007; Lionalert 2010), hunting not only appears to have been a more successful conservation policy than a ban on hunting, but there is scope for reform for hunting to provide better conservation benefits in the future.
Recent research has showed that African countries with the highest hunting rates, such as Tanzania, have experienced the harshest drops in trophies collected (Packer et al. 2009; Brink et al. 2016). Further, countries in West Africa, where hunting rates have been relatively lower, have experienced stable harvest rates (Bouché 2016). Evidently, hunting in Tanzania has been allowed at unsustainable levels, which has lead to a decline in lion populations and trophies collected. Stricter oversight and quotas are possible remedies, but as Packer (2009) argues, populations are difficult to survey, which makes setting quotas ambiguous, and preventing poaching is hard as hunters often bait lions out of protected areas.
Other problems can be targeted. The Tanzanian Government has preferred relying on trophy fees and granting hunting areas to companies on short-team deals, which encourages businesses to hunt more now and not plan for the future (Brink et al. 2016). Although this has maximised short-term Government revenue, it has caused overhunting. By offering longer term contracts to companies, conservation and business interests can be aligned, since businesses will need a sustainable plan with long-term revenues. This is supported by research by Brink (2016), who found that long-term hunting blocks have more sustainable populations and trophies collected.
Whitman’s 2004 model was built using data from Serengeti National Park, which has an idealised lion population with growth and adequate protection (Whitman et al. 2004). However, the situation for most lion populations is much worse, with problems of habitat fragmentation and loss of prey. Thus, this model has severe limitations. An updated model, using parameters and data which better reflect the ecological conditions faced by lions, found that probabilities of local extinctions were much higher (Creel et al. 2016). In particular, local extinction probabilities could only be kept under 10% by using a minimum age requirement of at least 7 years along with other policies such as a recovery period (Creel et al. 2016). A policy of 2-years hunting followed by a 2-year hunting ban, for example, would give adult males enough time to fully rear their young. Adopting amendments to hunting policies like this could once again make hunting sustainable.
Researcher Craig Packer exposed the Government of Tanzania’s corrupt practises, including falsely claiming that revenues were being reinvested into conservation and allowing hunting without regulation or payment. (Telegraph 2015). Revealing this information resulted in Packer being banned from Tanzania (National Geographic 2015). Clearly, the Tanzanian Government cannot be trusted with such an ecologically important power.
The healthier lion population in Tanzania compared to Kenya demonstrates that hunting has been more historically successful than a ban on hunting. However, in recent decades, hunting has been less sustainable (Packer et al. 2009; Brink et al. 2016) with too much focus on revenue. The Tanzanian Government has also demonstrated it cannot be trusted with the power to regulate hunting. Thus, hunting must be phased out if lion populations are to be made safe. A ban on hunting would destroy the incentive for locals for tolerate lion populations, putting them at risk (Bouché 2016). Instead, through higher age restrictions and recovery periods, hunting can be made more sustainable and profitable in the long-term. Extra Government revenues can be invested in environmental development, with a view to phasing out hunting and introducing lion sanctuaries, where people can enjoy pretty landscapes and see lions in their natural habitat. This incentive to tolerate lions could replace hunting and would clearly pose a reduced risk to their conservation.
A ban on hunting like seen in Kenya removed an incentive to tolerate lion populations, whereas the success of lion trophy hunting in Tanzania meant that lions had a crucial economic importance. The differences in these country’s lion populations show that an economic incentive is imperative. However, as shown by the declining productiveness of Tanzania’s lion trophy market, bleak model predictions and Kenya’s relative population growth success over Tanzania’s in recent years, hunting in its current form is no longer the answer for lion conservation. Reforms such as recovery periods and long-term hunting contracts are required for sustainability, and research into possible alternative incentives for lion conservation would also be beneficial
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