Poaching and farmers pose bigger threat to lions than trophy hunting

The brutal slaughter of Cecil the lion enraged the world, but the worst may be yet to come.

Last month an American dentist killed, beheaded and skinned Zimbabwe’s iconic lion in a trophy hunt last month, and now another American man is sought for a similar crime. However, as tragic as it is, being hunted for pleasure wasn’t Cecil’s biggest threat. Or even the lion’s second biggest threat. We speak with Luke Hunter, conservationist and head of Panthera, about the important issues overlooked in Cecil’s tale.

Researchgate: What’s the biggest threat facing lions?

Luke Hunter: The silver lining in Cecil’s death is that it’s drawn the world’s attention to the declining lion populations.  Lions have a reputation of being relatively well off but I think most people are probably unaware that they’re really in trouble. Trophy hunting is one part of the issue and therefore part of the challenge to conserve lions. However, many, many more lions are dying each day, week, and month for two main reasons: Widespread illegal poaching, mainly by wire snares, and retaliatory killing from rural Africans. Both of those things in combination are really the major issues we need to confront if we’re to save the lion.

RG: We often hear of poachers targeting of rhinos for their horns and elephants for their tusks. Why do they target lions?

LH: Illegal poaching is a big problem. Lions are rarely targeted specifically by poachers –more often they are caught and killed inadvertently in snares set for their prey. This is for the bush meat trade, which we’re now realizing is vast in Savannah Africa. Poachers will lay wire traps for antelopes and zebras and so on, and then lions - along with all sorts of carnivores - will get caught in them. Even so, whether or not lions are targeted, they can still enter the bush meat trade and be sold as a high value species.

This is a double whammy for lions: They’re not only killed at a high rate in these wire snares and leg-hold traps, but they also suffer from depleted prey resources. The bush meat trade mostly targets the species that lions prey on to sustain themselves, and so their populations decline due to insufficient protein.

RG: You mentioned lions are also killed by rural Africans, why is that?

LH: Rural Africans will kill lions if they perceive them to be a threat to their livestock, which is their livelihood. It’s an inevitable conflict, really. Africa has the fastest growing human population and a very high proportion of that population live in rural areas, which is near lions and other large wildlife that sometimes do kill livestock. While it’s easy for me to say “I love lions and they should be preserved,” there’s a genuine hardship that goes along with living with big cats, especially if you’re a fairly poor, impoverished pastoralist in Africa. This makes for the perfect storm of conditions. Many more lions are killed by retaliatory killing than shot during trophy hunts.

It’s a feedback loop that connects with the bush meat trade problem, too. Lions are left with increasingly less natural prey to feed on because of poachers. And when they have nothing to eat they resort to killing livestock, which fuels more retaliatory killing.

Luke Hunter with Joel Ziwa and Mustapha Nsubuga replacing a radio collar on a lioness named Masika.

RG: Last week the United Nations made a resolution to combat illegal trade in wildlife. From a conservation perspective, what needs to happen to stop poaching and increase the lion population?

LH: That’s the question. The UN resolution and other similar commitments made by governments around the world are essential in combatting the trade. They take a very strong position on the trafficking demand and intercepting the trade routes. That’s critical; it’s very important work. But alongside that we also really need to make sure lion populations are well protected in situ. Among other things, this involves providing technical expertise, funding and training to help local communities resolve or reduce their issues with lions.

Trying to address the conflict issue at its source is crucial, and we’ve had significant success in that. One example involves a community in north eastern Namibia. They live near several small protected lion areas and in 2013 we noticed they killed about 20 lions. So we trained some of the people in the community to monitor the lions and learn how to chase them away. We also offered them supplies and taught them how to improve the protection of their livestock, and to improve their husbandry. After that, the number of lions killed was reduced to one last year and zero this year (so far). This shows there are answers and we have programs with some nice data that prove they work.

RG: How can money be generated for these types of activities?

LH: That’s the other major issue and one that I think has been lost in the debate about Cecil. Many of Africa’s protected areas are absolutely massive and severely under resourced. They don’t have the funding and support to really offer good protection or to address wire snaring, illegal poaching and retaliatory  killing.

African governments do generate revenue from trophy hunting to safeguard their protected areas, however. And that fact needs to be recognized: while you could get rid of trophy hunting and eliminate one problem, it wouldn’t address the bigger issue that’s killing far more lions. To do that, significant resources are needed to support African governments, so they can protect their wildlife resources in their protected areas.

RG: There’s an emerging market for lion bones in the Far East. How does this threat compare with what you’ve already spoken about?

LH: We are finding evidence of wild lions being poached for the traditional Asian Medicinal trade. There’s certainly been a major growth in legal export of lion skeletons: it went from around 50 in 2008 to 573 in 2011, a few dozen skeletons in 2007 to around 600 skeletons in 2011. It’s important to note that this increase is mostly coming from captive bred lions in one country in South Africa, and so the legal exports that Africa permits to consumer nations – mostly China– has risen massively.

There’s an argument for this that I don’t necessarily buy. We’re told these captive breeding farms in South Africa help to curtail the demand on wild lions for the same medicinal products. But I’m not sure that’s the case. I just think the extent of the demand is just so great now that it doesn’t take that many people in China wanting to consume these products for the demand to be pretty intense.

RG: You wrote in a recent paper that wild lions are especially challenging subjects for applied conservation science. Why and how can this be overcome to help save the species?

Photo courtesy of Luke Hunter
Luke Hunter

LH: Big cats are tough to study. They generally live in low density areas and are cryptic: they’re not easy to observe and they generally avoid people, especially when there’s any kind of persecution or human pressure on them. So that’s a real challenge. Also, to get anything really meaningful about a big cat population you need a substantial sample size and maintain the research for a long time period. In terms of general research they are a well-studied species, but we need more investment to understand and tackle the fundamental issues they’re facing. And that’s where the real crux of this matter lies in conserving and saving the lion.

Top photo of Cecil the Lion courtesy of Vince O'Sullivan, all others courtesy of Luke Hunter.