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More Dark Clouds on the Horizon

Thursday 1st July 2010

More Dark Clouds on the Horizon

Time to change the weather


Lion Aid, through various networks, receives daily messages on a number of issues concerning lions. And concerning is the operative word.


At the beginning of the week, there was a message on the Predator Aware website (they operate in the Masai Mara of Kenya) stating that a projected total of about 130 lions or more will be lost in that country per year due to human conflict. Kenyan lions have been much in the news recently. With about 1700 lions left, various organizations have been publishing losses due to poisoning, shooting, and spearing. The situation was not helped by a current drought leading to decimation of natural prey populations causing hungry lions to trespass on pastoral lands, but 130 lions per year is a worry. Especially when these are adult or subadult lions, whose loss can lead to a significant disruption of pride structure.


Close on the heels of that report came a message from veterinarians about the likely consequences of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) introduced to Kruger National Park. Cattle were originally responsible for the introduction, African buffalos now propagate the disease, and lions eating buffalos suffer. It is estimated that 75% of the Kruger lion population will die in the next 20 years due to this disease. Kruger happens to contain one of the few major lion populations remaining in Africa, and could be a source of that species’ expansion into optimistic transfrontier parks in neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Seems a small possibility now.


How to change the weather?


Lion Aid has time and again stated that current lion conservation programmes need to be rethought and often revitalized. Too often, these continue to cling to academic interests, western solutions inappropriate to local situations on the ground, hopeful measures long indicated as hopeless, and an unswerving devaluation of disease threats.


Such programmes need internal and external evaluation in terms of effectiveness. Among these are compensation programs, education programs, and recent programs including lion protection scouts and lion guardians. With those appalling numbers of declines in Kenya, it might well require some new formulas and new curricula. People do not want to live with lions especially if those lions eat and harass valuable livestock and threaten human lives. Education programs and compensation schemes and guardian schemes seem delicate threads easily cut by livestock holders - guided by to them a much more effective scheme to prevent conflict – remove the lions.


This might seem overly critical towards well-meaning programmes, but that is the point is it not? Well-meaning is not equivalent to well-achieving, and how many well-meaning programs have fallen by the wayside over the years? Especially for lions we need positive achievements and whole new ideas, better ideas, more relevant ideas, and not old ideas with new spin. As mentioned above, if a programme is not effective, then learn from it, change it, or even abandon it.



But we can be rightly critical of Kruger National Park. The occurrence of bovine tuberculosis among the buffalo in the park has been known for two decades, and nothing was done; strange in a park where authorities do not shy from interventive management. Apart from mention in a few conferences, no scientific articles appear to have been published of the effects of bTB on individual lions, and indeed, the effect on the overall lion population. The disease is highly contagious and keeps spreading – it might already be in Zimbabwe. While there is considerable concern of the impact of bTB on immunocompromised humans, there seems to be little concern about the similar fragility of a population of FIV-infected lions. Kruger and South Africa have great research facilities, but so far little progress is being made on any front. So let’s have a comprehensive statement from Kruger. What are the facts, what positive actions if any are being taken, and can Kruger stand idly by as the neighbouring transfrontier parks become infected with bTB?


A silver lining?


Lion Aid has pushed to focus conservation efforts for lions on protected areas. But much needs to be done there. Protected areas need to be re-established from scratch in many places, and people and cattle currently illegally occupying them moved out. Even functional national protected areas are not always capable of offering safe havens for lions as the canine distemper outbreak (from domestic dog sources) in the Serengeti in 1994 demonstrated. Kruger is struggling with a different but equally insidious disease killing lions.


Yet protected areas, well-managed, must be the first line of hope in lion population recovery. That could well entail a re-design of such areas to incorporate buffer zones or even other means to prevent human incursion and predator excursion. Much more research should be done on disease issues. Much more effort should be synchronized to give lions additional layers of international protection. Much more transparency from donor-dependent programmes is required to objectively evaluate the success of their lion projects.


It will all require a bit of a shake-up and a wake-up, but it needs to be done. The alternative is to continually lose more lions, and lose the small window of opportunity we still have to intervene while there is still some hope.