Latest Lion Aid News

Lion population number declines - problem animal control or trophy hunting?

Estimates of the numbers of African lions remaining on the continent have been assembled by a diversity of different methods. There is no estimate for lion numbers before 1950, but
several sources can be cited for estimates in the recent past:

• Myers (1975) wrote “Since 1950, their numbers may well have been cut in half, perhaps to as low as 200,000 in all or even less.”
• In the early 1990s, IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group members made educated “guesstimates” of 30,000 to 100,000 for the African lion population (Nowell and Jackson, 1996).
• Ferreras and Cousins (1996) developed a GIS-based model to predict African lion range and numbers; based on their data sources on extent of agriculture and pastoralism they selected 1980 as the foundation year for their predicted African lion population of 75,800.
• Chardonnet et al (2002) estimated an average total of 39,373 lions.
• Bauer and van der Merwe (2004) estimated an average total of 23,000 lions.
• The IUCN (2006) estimated a total of between 29,995 and 36,495 lions, or an average of 33,245 lions. It must be noted that since those numbers were published, new estimates have reduced IUCN numbers by 60 – 70% in western Africa alone based on actual counts. 

By whatever method of estimation, lion numbers clearly have susbstantially decreased in Africa. There is no doubt that expansion of human and livestock populations, reduction of prey and habitat, and conflict issues have historically contributed to the great declines.

However, despite these declines, lions continue to be trophy hunted in 11 African lion range states (Botswana currently has a moratorium in place, but allowed lion trophy hunting in the past). Over the past ten years ending 2009 when reliable records end a total of 6651 trophies were exported according to CITES. These do not include numbers of lion trophies shot by resident hunters and thus not exported. Lion mortality by trophy hunting should thus be considered a major contributory component to their overall decline in numbers, but this is largely ignored by the IUCN and CITES. In addition, this source of mortality is only peripherally considered by “experts”.

Historical declines in lion populations doubtless were due to all the factors listed above. But we are now at the point where lion populations are so decreased that we should consider carefully the more current relevant threats to their populations. And trophy hunting mortality statistics figure prominently, especially as they include an exclusive percentage of the population – adult and subadult males. Such animals are crucially important to the reproductive potential of lion populations, and high rates of male turnover in lion prides can significantly affect lion cub survivorship. 

So let’s look at some statistics of lion problem animal control versus trophy hunting mortality. This information is based on numbers provided by informed individuals as well as official numbers from wildlife department records. This is the same quality of data used to provide continental and national lion population numbers, and therefore should be as relevant as similar data presently guiding IUCN and CITES evaluations to conclude trade in lions (trophy hunting) is sustainable.

An overview for four countries from which information is available is presented in this table and details of the entries are discussed below:




Conflict kills and years of estimation

Trophy hunting kills from CITES export data


Chardonnet 2009

15 per annum 2006-2008

21 p.a. 2005-2009


Stander 2000, and independent assessment

22-30 p.a. 1975-1994

25 p.a. 2005-2009


Rutina 2000 and independent assessment

19-25 p.a. 1992-2000

51 p.a. 1992-2000



73-150 p.a. 2000-2009

196 p.a. 2000-2009

Past statements about the primary causes of lion mortality:

1. IUCN 2006: Many in the cat conservation community, including the Cat SG and its affiliated African Lion Working Group (ALWG), did not consider the primary causes of this suspected decline to be trade-related (Nowell, 2004), and priorities for lion conservation have been identified as resolving human-lion conflicts and stemming loss of habitat and wild prey.

2. IUCN 2006: Indiscriminate killing of lions and depletion of their prey are the most prevalent and serious threats in Eastern and Southern Africa, followed by small lion population size. Habitat conversion and livestock encroachment also rank as significant threats. This Strategy emphasizes that lion trophy hunting is an important management tool that can provide benefits to local people and revenues to government conservation authorities, but stipulates that best practices should be implemented in the industry to ensure sustainability.

3. IUCN 2006: The top threats identified were indiscriminate killing of lions, hunting of lion prey for subsistence or bush meat trade, small population size, and livestock encroachment. Improperly managed trophy hunting was also considered to be adversely affecting several lion populations. The technical session … ranked a set of factors according to expected impact on the viability of all lion populations in the region. Trophy hunting was excluded from this analysis due to the difficulty of separating potentially negative biological impacts on lion populations from improperly managed offtakes from potentially positive socio-economic impacts on lion conservation. Properly managed trophy hunting was viewed as an important solution to long-term lion conservation.

4. IUCN Red List: A species population reduction of approximately 30% is suspected over the past two decades (= approximately three Lion generations). The causes of this reduction (primarily indiscriminate killing in defence of life and livestock, coupled with prey base depletion), are unlikely to have ceased.

5. Packer 2004: By far the most important threat to lions comes from problem animal control, and by putting lions on Appendix 1, the Kenyans would do much more harm than good. Tanzania has more lions than any other country in the world, and the majority of these animals live outside the national parks. If lion trophy hunting were stopped, they would have no economic value, and there would no longer be any incentive to conserve the lions. Opponents of trophy hunting have provided no alternative mechanism for funding the large-scale conservation efforts required to protect the species.

6. Frank et al, 2006: One report has blamed a local population decline on poorly regulated trophy hunting (Loveridge and Macdonald, 2003), but this problem appears to be restricted to Zimbabwe  and extensive retaliatory killing, snaring and habitat loss in the surrounding area are likely to be the major conservation risks to lions. Our opinion is that retaliatory and pre-emptive killing of lions by rural people, particularly livestock owners is the single greatest threat to lion populations.


7. Lion The most urgent threat to lions today is the widespread use of poison in retaliation for depredation on livestock.

8. Whitman et al, 2007: Control of problem animals, antagonistic killing, poaching, and loss of habitat are more serious threats to lion conservation than legalized hunting. Control of problem animals represents the single greatest factor responsible for lion decline outside protected areas today.

9. Packer, 2010: Greatest threats to lions: Loss of prey, persecution in retaliation for cattle killing and man-eating and sport hunting.

But to what extent is retaliatory killing a major factor in overall lion mortality? Certainly it occurs, and apart from the actions of official wildlife department problem animal control units, it is illegal in most African countries (though rarely prosecuted  - and a troubling phenomenon in some countries (e.g. Namibia, Zimbabwe)  is the legalization of problem animal hunts sold by trophy hunting operators to clients, an issue that has little to do with problem animal control). Illegal killing is therefore kept secret, and accurate numbers are all but unavailable. Nevertheless, estimates can be made of the scope and extent of such retaliations. There are two means of evaluation – the actual threat lions pose to livestock, and the numbers and estimations of retaliatory and cultural killings from a variety of sources.

Livestock depredation by lions with real data

How important is the threat from lions in terms of cattle depredation that would result in such retaliatory killing? A study by Laurence Frank in the Laikipia region of Kenya where livestock, wild herbivores and predators co-occur is instructive. In 1998, Frank estimated that predator (lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas) depredation killed about 0.8% of livestock on large scale ranches, and an average of 1.7% of pastoralist herds. In contrast, disease killed 2.4% of herds on large scale ranches, and 8.9% among pastoralists’ herds. Frank did not mention effects of drought. In another study, Maclennan et al (2009) examined a compensation scheme established on the Mbirikani Group Ranch, also in Kenya. There, 55% of claimants attempted to be compensated by the predator fund for livestock lost in the bush. The pastoral grazers on the group ranch lost an average of 206 cattle, 22 donkeys, and 503 sheep/goats per year to predators, or about 2.3% of the herd. Eighty percent of the kills were attributed to hyenas, leopards and cheetahs, and 7% to lions – equivalent to losses from jackals (7%) and buffalos and elephants (6%). Despite compensation, about one lion was killed in each year of the study, and no mention was made of hyenas, leopards, or cheetahs being killed.

Other studies show similar trends – depredation specifically attributable to lions is low, and is far exceeded by other sources of mortality and loss like disease, drought, stock theft, and just wandering off. In addition, pastoralists are notoriously capricious when identifying sources of mortality. A study conducted by Christian del Valle (MS Thesis, University of Kent) showed that in Botswana, reported attacks by lions rose from 21% to 61% 1995-2003, those by leopards from 11% to 29%, and those by crocodiles from 0.7% to 8%, while hyena attacks declined from 52% to 2%. These increases and decreases were solely based on a decision by the Botswana government in 1997 to exclude hyenas from compensation and only allow payments for depredations by crocodiles, lions, and leopards. The livestock owners took note and significantly altered their reporting to only include “compensatable” predators. Similar over-attribution of livestock depredation to lions in other countries is highly likely.

Overall, better herding practices and the building of stronger night enclosures for livestock (bomas) would alleviate many problems. At present, especially in semi-arid countries like Botswana, the current free-range approach to livestock upkeep is begging for consequential depredation by any predator. In Tanzania, Packer and Ikanda (2008) noted a substantial difference in mortality among livestock herded by children versus adults. Simple and straightforward practices could reduce much predator/livestock conflict and therefore reduce retaliatory killings. However, with increasing human and livestock populations, the long-term viability of any co-existing predator population must be considered slim. 

Human/lion mortality

Much has been made by Packer and others about the estimated number of human deaths in Tanzania from lion attacks. In total, Packer recorded 563 human mortalities from 1990 to 2004, or about 37 per year, translating to about 8 people per 10 million in the Tanzanian population. The attacks were registered from numerous districts in the country. Without diminishing the tragedy of those deaths they have to be put into perspective as they have led to a demonization of lions and a strange justification for trophy hunting – essentially the sport hunters are doing the rural communities a favour by keeping man-eaters under control. Not only is this complete nonsense, but human deaths caused by lions are actually miniscule when compared to other sources of annual human mortality in Tanzania.

For a short list, in Tanzania 193 to 1499 people per year die of rabies-infected dog bites, 600 from snake bites, 1,900 from falls, 4,700 from drowning, 6,000 from asthma, 13,000 from road accidents, 14,000 from violence/homicide, 21,000 from malaria, 23,000 from diabetes, 35,000 from diarrhoea, and 122,000 from HIV/Aids/tuberculosis.  Tanzania ranks 21st highest among 220 countries in terms of an infant mortality at a rate of 6.7 per 1000 live births as of 2010. The number of humans killed by lions in Tanzania per year (37) is equivalent to the number of people killed in the USA per 100,000 inhabitants by lightning strikes. Lion attacks might make the news much as shark attacks do (over the past 50 years, only one person has been killed by a shark each year in Australia compared to 87 people who drown at beaches annually), but in reality the number of people killed by lions in Tanzania is miniscule compared to the hyperbole that such attacks have generated.

Most people killed by lions are out at night and unprotected. Packer and colleagues were able to assign specific times to such attacks – after sunset and between 6pm and 10pm in the evening on moonless nights. People were out at such times protecting their crops from elephants and other herbivores, and were attacked either in the fields (lion were also hunting crop raiding animals like bush pigs at the time) or on their journeys back and forth from their villages. As with livestock depredation, there would seem to be practical solutions available to avoid such mortality. But as mentioned above, the long-term probability of a dangerous predator population continuing to live in close contact with humans must be considered insignificant .  

Cultural/traditional lion killings separate from lion/livestock issues

In Tanzania, Ikanda and Packer (2008) recorded incidences of cultural lion killings (Ala-mayo) by resident Maasai in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Maasai morani (warriors) engage in such killings, though outlawed in the 1970’s, to demonstrate their courage and strength. Ikanda and Packer note that such killings are illegal and therefore not readily disclosed, but were able to document a minimum average of 2.2 lions killed annually for purely cultural purposes in the Conservation Area between 1985-2005. The authors noted an increase in such killings conforming to periods of time when new age classes were inducted as morani.  Such cultural killings not only pertain to the Maasai, and could be widespread across eastern and some parts of southern Africa. These cultural killings have little to do with retaliation, though Ikanda and Packer claim that stock-raiding lions can be killed for both cultural and retaliatory purposes.  They also note that such cultural killings, 2.2 lions per year, are much lower than trophy hunting quotas (24 males per year) in neighbouring hunting concessions.

Problem animal killings of lions – the available estimates

• Mozambique – Chardonnet (2009): 45 lions killed as problem animals 2006-2008, 15 per year.

• Namibia – Stander (2000): 30 lions killed per year as problem animals based on data from 1965-1994 collected by the Etosha Ecological Institute. These data are not particularly relevant to current problem animal offtake and trophy hunting rates as very few lions now survive outside Etosha National Park. Based on skin sales (likely all derived from problem animals), an average of 22 lions per annum were killed 1975-1994. 

• Kenya – Wildlife Extra: 18 lions killed/poisoned in 2010. Kenya has imposed a trophy hunting ban since 1977. Media attention to each death by poisoning is high, but the overall numbers of lions killed in Kenya in recent years for retaliation for livestock depredation is decreasing.

• Tanzania – Ikanda 2008: 73-77 lions persecuted in high human-lion conflict areas in 2007.

• Tanzania – Tarangire lion project: 13 lions killed per year in Tarangire region 2001-2004.

• Tanzania –  Tarangire lion project: 37 lions killed annually January 2004-July 2007 in Tarangire area.

• Tanzania – Personal communication : between 100-150 lions per year

• Botswana –  Rutina 2000: 19 lions killed per year as problem animals 1992-1998 in zones bordering protected areas in northern Botswana, most of them on the southern perimeter of the Delta.

• Botswana – Personal communication: 1999-2000, approximately 25 lions per year in the Okavango region.

Again, a picture very different emerges from that painted by those who feel trophy hunting is a minor source of lion mortality.

In Mozambique, 15 lions are killed as problem animals per year versus a minimum (data suggest several lions shot in Mozambique per year are declared for export in South Africa) of 21 trophies taken each year 2005-2009.

In Tanzania, numbers vary considerably, but 73 -150 lions have been proposed as a yearly problem animal control offtake versus an average of 196 lions taken as trophies taken on average between 2000-2009.

In Namibia an adjusted average of 22 lions is proposed per year for 1975-1994 problem animal mortality versus an average trophy yearly offtake of 25 lions 2005-2009. Lion trophy hunting is increasing in Namibia (by decade, 1975-1984: 12 lions, 1985- 1994: 127 lions, 1995- 2004: 121 lions, 2005 – 2009 (5yrs): 123 lions already and thus a projected decade total of 246 lions ). Few lions now remain outside strictly protected areas in Namibia (Stander 2010). 

In Botswana, 19 lions were killed per annum as problem animals 1992-1998, and perhaps 25 from 1999-2000, but during the same time 59 lions on average were exported as trophies. 

Overall, trophy lion exports exceed problem animal control numbers per annum in all those countries.


On the whole, the decrease in lion numbers in Africa could in past years have been correctly attributed to loss of habitat, loss of prey, and conflict. More recently, however, it is becoming increasingly evident that the remaining lion population has decreased to the point where other sources of mortality are becoming ever more significant. In their current small numbers, lions have negligible effects on actual livestock losses and threats to human lives. Lions, however, are perceived with past prejudices and are still subsequently killed out of proportion to the actual depredation they inflict on livestock. For some countries it is difficult to disentangle cultural killing from retribution.

In summary, sport hunting is now becoming the major source of lion mortality, and as the majority of trophies taken are from adult and subadult males, the practice is expected to have significant consequences on reproduction among hunted populations. The more relevant data becomes available, the more that this increasingly anachronistic practice should cease for the overall conservation benefit of the species.   



Posted by Pieter Kat at 15:09

No comments have been posted yet.

Add a new comment

Existing user

New user sign up