Hunting as Conservation?

By Dr. Pieter Kat
Last updated 27 Feb 2010


Despite an acknowledged dramatic decline in numbers of African lions, trophy hunters insist their activities contribute to the overall conservation of the species. They justify this position from an economic point of view – trophy fees are paid to governments and hunting concession fees are paid to landholders including communities. If lions are seen to be a source of income, the hunters say, governments and communities might excuse loss of livestock due to predation and tolerate lion presence outside national reserves and protected areas. The additional lands available to lions in such concessions would further contribute to their conservation. This mantra is so often repeated it might even have gained some acceptance outside the hunting community. 

But is it true?

One way to check is with export numbers published by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This organization was established to regulate the worldwide trade in a great diversity of species, a global industry worth over one billion dollars per year. Since lions are presently classified as “vulnerable” on the CITES list, all exports and imports involving lions (live animals, trophies, skins, bones, even scientific samples) need to be issued with permits and recorded. The system is not perfect and there continues to be illegal traffic in all CITES listed species, but it does provide a good indication of the extent to which lion trophies flow from savannas to trophy rooms.

It is estimated that there were over 200,000 lions in Africa in the 1960’s.

In 2004, Hans Bauer at Leiden University in the Netherlands and Sarel van der Merwe of the African Lion Working Group of the IUCN published a paper titled “Inventory of Free-Ranging Lions Panthera leo in Africa” (Oryx 38 (1) 26-31). As an independent attempt to establish remaining wild lion populations in Africa, over 100 people were interviewed in 2002. Researchers, wardens, “informed” individuals – and the “conservative” published estimate ended up with 16,500 to 30,000 lions on the continent. Of all ages – adult males, females, sub adults, cubs.

The authors acknowledge that not all areas were covered, and that 70% of their information was based not on an actual count, but informed guesses as to numbers of lions present. They built factors of confidence into their data – hence the spread between 16,500 and 30,000 lions estimated. Their information remains the best independent assessment to date.  Another study, conducted by Philippe Chardonnet and supported by the Safari Club International, a pro-hunting lobby, estimated a maximum of over 47,000 lions in 2002 using the same methods, again of all ages and sexes. This study was not published in a scientific journal so therefore not reviewed by scientists for assessment of credibility of content, and has since received criticism from the IUCN.

Eight years after these lion population numbers were made available, it is generally accepted that there are fewer than 20,000 lions left on the continent. No more than five populations contain sufficient individuals to be considered long-term viable. The causes for the continuing decline are considered due to conflict with expanding human and livestock populations, loss of natural prey base for lions, exposure to domestic animal diseases like canine distemper and bovine tuberculosis – but there is no mention of trophy hunting pressure.

Between 2002, when those latest surviving wild lion numbers were estimated, and 2008, when best reliable data from CITES export data for the continent ends, a total of 4249 “wild” lion trophies were exported. The category of “wild” lions is necessary as in South Africa, hunters who export trophies under CITES permits have the option of shooting captive-bred lions, a practice known as “canned” hunting.

Even if one takes the greatly optimistic total of 47,000 lions in Africa derived by Mr Chardonnet in 2002, an export of 4249 lions since then is significant. Hunters are largely prohibited from shooting females, would be embarrassed to bring home a trophy of a cub, and largely aim for males. Few wild lion males born reach adulthood – a difficult journey involving confrontations with resident pride males during their nomadic phase for example. In Botswana, about 15% of lions in an area are adult males – the prize trophies.

That means in 2002, according to Mr Bauer and Mr Van der Merwe’s maximum lion estimates, there were 4500 potential adult male trophy lions in all Africa. By Mr Chardonnet’s estimates, there might have been 7000. Perhaps the hunters shot underage males, but still, 4249 exported lions imply a significant depredation. Many additional lions were probably shot, as domestic trophy hunting numbers are not recorded by CITES.

Where were these lions shot? From 2002 to 2007, 1112 trophies were exported from Tanzania, 935 from South Africa, 459 from Zimbabwe, 283 from Zambia, and 97 from Mozambique as the top five exporting countries. According to the population numbers provided by Mr Bauer and Mr Van der Merwe, that would indicate that Tanzania exported 13% of their estimated 2002 population, South Africa 33%, Zimbabwe 32%, Zambia 14%, and Mozambique 11%. Lions simply cannot reproduce fast enough to maintain this level of offtake of adult males, meaning that the resource is being mined rather than sustainably utilized. No wonder that Mr Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota found that lion populations in areas where they were hunted declined faster than in areas where they were not.

Where did the exported trophies go? Far over 2000 to the United States, over 300 to Spain, almost 200 each to France, Germany and Mexico. The UK imported 49 wild lion trophies between 2002 and 2008. Other countries where the trophy hunters mounted their lions were Sweden, Norway, Russia, Denmark, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates – the list is long.

Clearly, the CITES numbers tell a different story from the hunter’s spin. A species in freefall decline should not be subjected to additional mortality from trophy hunters. Lions have a complex social system in which males play a role to ensure survival of cubs. With that number of exports, significant reproductive difficulties can be predicted from disrupted prides.

To ensure survival of lions in Africa, much needs to be done. Populations in existing protected areas need to be carefully monitored. Additional legislated protected areas need to be revived in countries where past civil strife or current political instability has rendered those reserves defunct. Non-consumptive photographic tourism, though it brings along its own set of problems, remains an economic alternative to destructive hunting. And lions need a significantly increased level of range-state and international protection.  

While many factors surely add to the overall dramatic loss of lions in Africa, continued trophy hunting will not contribute to their long-term survival. The statistics about the number of glass-eyed lions adorning many walls tell the sad truth about hunting as a proposed conservation measure by vested interests.