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The Effects of Lion Trophy Hunting on Lion Populations

In this article, I will first review the concept that trophy hunting can be seen as a positive contributor to overall wildlife conservation goals, and then move to the concept that lion trophy hunting is sustainable. The conclusions I will reach is that trophy hunting in general could contribute positively towards keeping land available for wildlife populations instead of other land uses, but only with a thorough revision of current practices. We have already seen the abject failures of trophy hunting to provide tangible benefits for communities living with wildlife in a previous article on this site. As for lion trophy hunting, all available scientific evidence clearly points out that the activity is not sustainable, comes at a considerable cost to source lion populations, and is directly responsible for significant declines of lion populations in hunting areas and even protected areas that share borders with hunting concessions.


It is abundantly clear that the attitude of trophy hunting being of major importance for conservation is deeply ingrained among trophy hunters, their advocates, and lobbyists. Trophy hunters proudly point out that hunting is well managed, sustainable, combines low offtakes with high prices thereby giving wildlife considerable economic value that it otherwise would not have, is of low environmental impact, generates wildlife revenue for areas not suitable for tourism (including countries characterized by political instability), is a major positive deterrent to poaching, etc. No wonder that opinion polls indicate that 100% of African hunting operators and 99% of their clients believe in the positive role of hunting in wildlife conservation. As actual scientific, economic, and sociological evaluations are surprisingly few, this level of faith, based only on evidence from the grey literature, is astounding.

Perhaps the operators’ faith is influenced by the sums of money involved in the industry, as it has been estimated that gross income in sub-Saharan Africa is over $200 million per year. Such income is skewed towards rather few countries. For example in southern and eastern Africa, trophy hunting generates between $66 and $137 million per year in South Africa (estimates for 2002 and 2005; includes game ranch hunting), between $27.6 and $36.1 million per year in Tanzania (2005), $18.5 million per year in Zimbabwe (2002) and $12.6 million per year in Botswana (2001). I stress that these are likely minimal estimates as they are extrapolated figures and not actual income numbers provided by the trophy hunting operators.

What does emerge from the scientific literature is that independent analyses of the claimed conservation benefits of trophy hunting are overdue and necessary. For example, specific research on the impact of trophy hunting on a number of species is required to authenticate claims of sustainability and low impact. Also, where quotas are set, they must be based on realistic and regular population counts of the species involved in offtake. This is an expensive exercise that many African governments cannot undertake alone, but it is crucial to sound wildlife management. At present, governments do not have the information they need to counter demands of high and increasing quotas driven by the high value of wildlife trophies. Until such studies are undertaken, conservation claims by hunters utilizing the resource are unjustified and baseless.

In a recent review of the conservation significance of trophy hunting, Lindsey and co-authors suggested a number of other necessary changes to trophy hunting practices, not all of which apply to all countries reviewed:

1. There should be improved enforcement of regulations that apply to trophy hunting, including the necessity for professional hunters to belong to state-approved hunting organizations that have the power to suspend or remove licences on non-compliance. In my opinion this should also include financial penalties and the option of imprisonment by the state. If poaching contravenes the laws of the state and results in such actions, then professional hunters conducting similar illegal activities should suffer the same consequences.
2. The allocation of hunting areas should be a transparent process, and obligations of concession owners to the state and communities enforced.
3. Ownership of wildlife on community lands should in much greater measure devolve to the communities themselves to permit direct benefits.
4. An independent certification process is needed for hunting operators, especially as opinion polls have clearly indicated that hunting clients are concerned that hunting is conducted in a conservation-friendly manner.

In summary, the claim that trophy hunting benefits conservation should not be based on faith and the assumption that if claims are repeated often enough, they will be believed. In the past, hunters have relied on the stratagem of demanding proof that hunting does not contribute to the conservation of wildlife. Rather, since the hunters are deriving significant profits from national natural resources, the onus should be on them to prove that their activities are sustainable and do not negatively affect wildlife populations. Needless to say, truly independent assessors should undertake such evaluations.


1. The numbers

Lions are highly desirable trophy animals, and lion hunts are sold for more than any other species except elephants. Before Botswana imposed a moratorium, lion hunts were sold for as much as $130,000. Since operators differ widely in daily fees and other costs to the client, and since lions are often sold in “combination” packages with other animals, it is not possible to estimate the total cost of a lion hunt in the various countries where they are hunted. However, daily rates alone for a safari including lions generally fall in the $1,800 per day range for a mandated 18-21 days ($32,400 - $37,800 total), with a maximum of $3,400 per day for a 28 day safari in Zambia ($95,200 total). Trophy fees charged by the operators once an animal is shot (a Government license fee plus a profit for the hunting company except in Tanzania where the client purchases the lion directly from the Wildlife Department) also vary widely across countries for lions: $31,500 in South Africa, $29,000 in Botswana, $8000 in Mozambique, $7000 in Tanzania, and $ 6000 in Zimbabwe and Zambia. The message to take home from these figures is that a lion hunt is highly profitable to the operator and the Government, implying that pressure will be applied to continue the practice: the 119 trophies exported from Tanzania in 2009 will have earned the Government $833,000.

Just in terms of absolute numbers, CITES records indicate that a total of 4791 lion trophies were exported from Africa between 2002 and 2009 from a current total estimated population of about 20,000 lions of all ages and sexes. In terms of the top five exporting countries, 1512 wild lion trophies derived from South Africa, 1363 from Tanzania, 550 from Zimbabwe, 386 from Zambia, and 141 from Mozambique during those eight years. These would largely be male trophies from areas where trophy hunting is permitted (but also including lions from protected areas, see below). Lions simply cannot reproduce fast enough to maintain this offtake level of adult (and subadult) males, meaning that the resource is being mined rather than sustainably utilized.

It is therefore not surprising that Packer and co-authors, by analysing data from Tanzania, found that between 1996 and 2008, the lion “harvest” had declined by over 50%. This was not due to a lack of effort by the hunters, nor due to fewer hunters visiting Tanzania: since 1998 hunting has seen an increase in clients of 60%. The decline was simply due to the fact that Tanzania was rapidly running out of trophy lions, and clients were increasingly shooting underage males. The net result was that the steepest harvest declines occurred in areas with the highest harvest intensities, and trophy hunting contributed at a level of 92% to reduced success by statistical analyses. The lions were not poached, snared, poisoned, or shot by irate livestock owners; they were simply overhunted. Nor were they succumbing to factors such as disease and drought – lion numbers remained stable in tourist areas without hunting.

Tanzania has always operated on a quota system, and this has long stood at 500 lions to be harvested from the approximately 300,000km2 assigned to trophy hunting concessions. Packer has mentioned that such quotas were excessive and have never been attained; the highest number exported was 314 in 2000. Packer has subsequently called for a great reduction in the quota, called for an age-minimum to be established for lions shot, and proposed outlawing the use of baits to attract lions to the hunters. The age- minimum has recently been adopted by the wildlife authorities, and it is now law that no lion less than six years old can be harvested in Tanzania (other countries could also impose age minima, but the “six year rule” should be adapted for other countries such as Botswana and Zimbabwe, where an “eight year rule” would be more appropriate as males there begin reproducing later than in Tanzania). Professional hunters and operators who continue hunting underage lions face fines and jail terms on the third offence. It remains to be seen whether such laws are enforceable, and as mentioned above, whether the Tanzanian professional hunting association will indeed also penalize transgressors.   

2. The effects of trophy hunting on lion populations

While Packer was able to demonstrate severe reductions in harvest success among lion populations that were overhunted, indicating a source population that could not supply the level of demand, no further information is available from these populations as they have not been studied. Therefore, there is a lack of data about reproductive success and cub survival rates, male:female ratios, and other possibly skewed parameters when hunted populations are compared with protected populations.

It is clear, however, that selective and constant removal of reproductive and even pre-reproductive males from a lion population will have significant effects. Among species where males have paternal investment in their offspring, in addition to being infanticidal when they first gain groups of reproductive females, the consequences of overharvesting can be predicted to drastically affect reproduction and population size.

A study conducted by Loveridge and co-authors in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, that is surrounded by hunting blocks, probably gives the best indication to date of the consequences of trophy hunting on lion populations. Between 1999 and 2004, a total of 38 lions within the Park were tagged either with radiocollars or with ear tags, and 24 of those were shot by trophy hunters – baits were used to lure lions out of the protected area and into the hunting concessions. That offtake of 24 lions represented 72% of the adult territorial males tagged within the Park and 60% of the tagged subadult males. Two consequences became immediately apparent: the proportion of adult males/females declined from 1:2.8 to 1:6.3, and the rapid turnover of males resulted in increased infanticide. In terms of male turnover, two lion prides saw a change of males four times during the five years of the study as previous male coalitions were successively removed by hunters. A total of 19 cubs were lost most likely lost due to infanticide (directly observed on five occasions) from four prides. And at times, males removed from a pride were not replaced for considerable periods of time – in one instance no “replacement” males appeared for 16 months.

In addition, loss or decline of an apex species in an ecosystem can have cascade effects that influence a diversity of other species, especially if this encourages the increase in so-called meso-predators as discussed in another article on this site.

3. CITES and the IUCN and numbers versus realities

The reluctance of CITES (an organization whose aim is to ensure international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival) to place lions on their Appendix 1 list (species threatened with extinction where trade is a significant factor in their decline) is evident. Kenya proposed uplisting lions in 2004, but withdrew the proposal in favour of a plan to encourange individual lion range states to draw up plans for lion conservation measures. Few have done so, and from 2005 to 2009 another 3000 lion trophies were exported. Lions were not on the 2007 or 2010 CITES agendas, and it can only be hoped that they will be for the next meeting in 2013.

One of the reasons that CITES asked Kenya to withdraw their 2004 proposal was that it could not be shown that trade (trophy hunting) was a significant contributor to the overall decline of  lion.numbers. We feel the numbers of lions exported as trophies versus the numbers of lions estimated in Africa were already quite convincing in 2004, but a crucial aspect of the effect of trade was missed by only considering numbers. Trophy hunting has considerable secondary effects on lion populations as mentioned above in terms of loss of cubs due to infanticide, reduced rates of reproduction in prides in hunting areas, and a severe skew in pride sex ratios. Such effects need to be duly considered by CITES, as trade is directly responsible for these perturbations to lion populations.

The reluctance of the IUCN to upgrade the status of lions to Endangered on their Red List is equally puzzling. IUCN is not bound by regulations like CITES where a direct link between trade and the decline needs to be established, but they do have their own rules. For example, to be considered endangered, species must meet specific criteria such as: “An observed, estimated, inferred or suspected population size reduction of  >50% over the last 10 years or three generations, whichever is the longer, where the reduction or its causes may not have ceased OR may not beunderstood OR may not be reversible, based on (and specifying) any of (a) to (e) under A1”. Or: “Population size estimated to number fewer than 2500 mature individuals”. So lions, with a suspected population decline of 90% over the past 50 years don’t qualify as the decline is not severe enough over the last ten years, and there are more than 2500 mature individuals in the remaining pan-African population.

You wonder who dreams up these rules and regulations, bureaucracy and conservation don’t mix, and neither can such rather arbitrary rules be applied across all manner of species from lions to antelopes to amphibians to insects to plants. Just as a small example of reproductive potential, for example, a single female Ocean Sunfish can produce 300 million eggs, whereas a female lion in the wild will maximally produce and rear 2 cubs every three years. The IUCN has driven itself into a corner with arbitrary reliance on numbers that are not biologically realistic. Flexibility and responsiveness are required for conservation effectiveness, and both CITES and the IUCN sorely lack such attributes.

4. Summary

The ability of any lion population within a hunting area to sustain continuous offtake of males is a dangerous supposition. Studies in Tanzania have shown that operators and professional hunters show no constraint in their lion hunting activities, and such hunting has severely impacted on resident populations. Studies in Zimbabwe have shown that the effects of lion trophy hunting go well beyond the removal of an animal from a population. Arguments that trophy hunting of lions can in any way be construed as conservation are facile and unrealistic. The notion that operators and professional hunters are concerned about the conservation of the species hunted should be seriously questioned, as they do not seem to voluntarily change their practices and have to be forced into change by the local Government. If clients are truly concerned about the conservation consequences of their hunting activities they should educate themselves better. And international regulatory bodies like the IUCN and CITES could do with much greater flexibility to respond appropriately and pro-actively by considering greater complexities about species than just numbers. Perhaps lions could also be considered within the EC Wildlife Trade Regulations that largely parallel the CITES Appendices but can include different provisions. Finally, clearly defined and independent research urgently needs to be conducted, at least comparing population structure, dynamics, and reproduction, among hunted and non-hunted populations of African species such as the lion.


Packer C, Kosmala M, Cooley HS, Brink H, Pintea L, et al. (2009) Sport Hunting, Predator Control and Conservation of Large Carnivores. PLoS ONE 4(6): e5941. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005941
Packer C, Brink H, Kissui BM, Maliti H, Caro T (2010) Effects of trophy hunting on lion and leopard populations in Tanzania. Conservation Biology, in press

Lindsey PA, Roulet PA, Romanach SS (2007) Economic and conservation significance of the trophy hunting industry in sub-Saharan Africa. Biological Conservation 134: 455-469.
Lindsey PA, Alexander R, Frank LG, Mathieson A, Romanach SS (2006) Potential of trophy hunting to create incentives for wildlife conservation in Africa where alternative wildlife-based uses may not be viable. Animal Conservation 9: 283-248.
Loveridge AJ, Searle AW, Murindagamo F, Macdonald DW (2007) The impact of sport-hunting on the population dynamics of an African lion population in a protected area. Biological Conservation 134: 548-558.

Posted by Pieter Kat at 10:21

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