While legions of people right across the world were outraged by the slaughter of Cecil the lion at the hands of dentist Walter Palmer in July 2015, many also hoped that the international attention would translate into positive change and a brighter future for Africa’s imperilled lions.

In the wake of ‘Cecil-gate’, the US and French governments have tightened restrictions on importing lion trophies or banned them outright and over 40 airlines have forbidden or reaffirmed policies forbidding lion and other wildlife trophies on their flights.

It is also possible that lions, currently listed under Appendix II of the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), could soon be shifted to the more prohibitive Appendix I. This would put a stop to nearly all international trade in lion parts. These actions might sound comforting to Cecil’s mourners, but lion conservation experts say they won’t be enough to reverse population declines.

More action is needed

According to Dr. Paul Funston, Senior Lion Program Director for global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera: ‘The policy changes being suggested by western governments are likely to substantially restrict the ease with which lion trophies may be imported into those countries, thereby reducing the numbers of wild lions that will be hunted.’

However, he’s quick to point out that: ‘these measures will not completely curtail lion hunting as citizens from other countries also hunt lions, although currently the United States and parts of Europe controlled by the EU are by far the largest client base.’

In a 2015 paper, a research team including Funston and led by Dr. Peter A. Lindsey critically stated: ‘Recent global movements to preclude trophy hunting… have been characterised by a lack of realistic suggestions for alternative income streams for wildlife areas in countries where that land use is practiced.’

Populations in peril

Photo courtesy of panthera.org
Photo courtesy of panthera.org

Scientists emphasise that effective conservation strategies are urgently needed to stop the rapid decrease in African lion populations.

‘For lions to have declined by an estimated 42% over the last twenty years means that only two decades ago there would have had to have been about 30,000 wild lions, with current estimates barely above 20,000,’ Funston explains.

In another recent paper, Funston and seven others including lead author Dr. Hans Bauer summarise the results of their research on the population trends of 47 lion populations since 1990. They report that: ‘African lion populations are declining everywhere, except in four southern countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe)… at a regional scale, lion populations in West, Central, and East Africa are likely to suffer a projected 50% decline over the next two decades, whereas lion populations are only increasing in southern Africa.’

‘Unless political and funding commitments are scaled up to address mounting levels of threat,’ they warn, ‘lions may disappear from most of Africa.’

Conservation challenges

While trophy hunting is abhorrent to many humans, it is not the only, nor the most serious, threat lions face.

Funston enumerates a sobering list: ‘Land conversion to subsistence agriculture and denudation of rangeland by cattle are no doubt the biggest drivers of range contraction for lions and can only be solved at the policy level within each lion range country. Thereafter Panthera has determined that the effects of poaching wildlife for bushmeat is the most significant threat… with snares and traps killing lion prey, and killing lions, both inside protected areas (national parks and game reserves) as well as in less protected areas (game/wildlife management areas/communal areas/conservancies).

Conflict with humans as a result of lions attacking livestock, and sometimes people, remains a persistent threat… although in recent years a number of mitigation techniques have been developed that are very effective… and we are now seeing a downturn in conflict as a driver of lion population declines.’

The trouble with hunting

Photo by paula french / Shutterstock
Photo by paula french / Shutterstock

Reacting to airline bans on lion trophies, government officials in Namibia and South Africa expressed concerns that conservation efforts supported by their countries’ lucrative hunting industries would suffer as a result. Trophy hunting is big business in Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia as well and contributes to state wildlife authorities’ operating budgets in some of these countries. It also creates economic incentive to set aside and retain land for wildlife-based use, even if that land isn’t attractive to non-hunting tourists.

However, leveraging hunting or other tourist activities to successfully support conservation is no easy task. ‘In many protected areas in Africa… revenues from tourism, hunting, etc. just don’t pay all the bills,’ says Funston. ‘[This] is compounded by most governments raking in almost all the funds generated from wildlife into central coffers, and re-allocating almost none of this money to park management. An immediate positive step would be for parks to retain any income they generated, or at least of good portion of it.

However, even with such a system in place, many protected areas are not attractive enough to most tourists, not having enough wildlife for viewing, or scenic splendour, or comfortable lodges to attract high paying clients. This is an often used argument for zonation of wildlife use, with photographic tourism being confined to all the best places and hunting taking place in less attractive areas. But even this model is not without its challenges, especially as with the Cecil case hunters resort to luring magnificent tourist friendly lions out of a national park, into often depleted adjacent hunting zones.’

Other problems with hunting include corrupt operators depleting hunting areas at the expense of their more conservation-minded competitors, inappropriately-high quotas that drive down population size, cumulative impacts created by overlap of legal hunting and poaching in the same areas and hunting along the edges of protected areas that negatively affects protected populations.

Common practices that are increasingly coming under fire from activists are the hunting of ‘canned’ lions and ‘put and take’ hunting. These involve breeding lions in captivity and then either hunting them within enclosures or releasing them specifically to be killed. Last December, the Professional Hunter’s Association of South Africa publicly announced that it would no longer tolerate involvement with captive-bred lion hunting among its members, further discrediting these ethically questionable practices.

The future of lion hunting

‘For the hunting industry to play an effective conservation role, there is a need for African governments and the hunting industry to take concrete steps to improve the sustainability of the practice,’ assert Lindsey and colleagues. ‘Importantly, greater reinvestment in the protection of the resource is required of hunting operators. To reach adequacy in most cases, such investment will require subsidising hunting blocks through philanthropic donations from the wider hunting community. Systems are also required to ensure that the best performing operators access hunting blocks and that those who do not perform in conservation terms are prevented from operating.’

Whether lion hunting will remain an important source of funding for conservation efforts in the future is uncertain. Its viability is threatened not only by negative media attention and pressure from the anti-hunting movement but also by the depletion of hunting areas due to poaching and human encroachment. If the hunting community does not take concrete steps to reform its industry, it may cease to be profitable.

On the other hand, trophy hunting organisations in the US, which supply a large portion of the clientele for African hunting operators, still appear to be going strong. Safari Club International, the world’s largest trophy hunting organisation, continues to generate millions of dollars through its annual auction. These events draw tens of thousands of participants eager to bid on opportunities to hunt hundreds of animals. A similar group, Dallas Safari Club, beat its attendance record with last year’s auction and is growing quickly enough to warrant founding chapters across the country. If these enthusiastic hobbyists have their way, Africa’s trophy hunting industry will have no trouble staying in business.

Building capacity for conservation

Photo by Nikolay Roslyakov / Shutterstock
Photo by Nikolay Roslyakov / Shutterstock

As Funston sees it, ‘protected areas in most parts of Africa are so critically under resourced, both financially and in terms of human capacity, that irrespective of whether society accepts lion hunting or not, or indeed even if lion hunting generates some financial resources for protected areas, lions are still experiencing rapid decline… We should not embroil ourselves in debates about lion hunting, but shift the focus of the discussion to how Africa’s protected areas can be better resourced.’

But how can this be achieved? Lindsey and colleagues propose several strategies, including ‘debt-for-nature’ arrangements between countries, whereby debts are forgiven in exchange for land being dedicated and maintained for conservation; carbon or biodiversity offset programs in which developers or polluters foot the conservation bill; the direction of a portion of development funding towards tourism infrastructure in order to stimulate economies and create jobs; and the forging of partnerships between state wildlife authorities and reputable partners in the NGO or private sectors, which would also furnish technical support needed for wildlife management.

At the same time, the researchers caution that: ‘increased reliance on donor aid would increase the vulnerability of conservation efforts to political instability and to the vagaries of international relations. In addition, efforts to raise international funding for conservation-related issues have achieved modest success so far, highlighted by delays between commitments and disbursements for the REDD+ programme. Rather, efforts should be focused on both increasing and diversifying the funding streams available for conservation in Africa.’

Bauer and colleagues argue that ongoing, vigilant research is also necessary. They recommend that independent agencies undertake frequent and thorough large-scale surveys to keep tabs on the state of lion populations and provide an accurate picture of long term-trends.

To learn about Panthera’s initiatives to conserve lions and other wild cat species, visit panthera.org. For updates on Cecil’s offspring and the other wildlife at his former home, Hwange National Park, check out the Friends of Hwange Trust.