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African lions are not endangered and should continue to be trophy hunted?


                                                 Unless this continues, lions will go extinct

On September 2nd, Melissa Simpson (Director of Science-Based Wildlife Conservation at the Safari Club International) placed an Opinion Piece in the National Geographic Daily News entitled “African Lions Should Not be Listed as Endangered"

Already roundly and justifiably criticized by other commentators on the National Geographic site, the article was clearly yet another attempt by SCI to influence the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s deliberations on whether to list lions on the US Endangered Species Act. This would prevent further imports of lion hunting trophies into the USA, a possibility that sends shudders through the ranks of US lion trophy hunters. After all, these USA hunters are responsible for about 60% of the lion trophy hunts in Africa, and they dearly would like to visit the continent in the future in search of more trophy room decorations. Despite the havoc among lion populations they leave behind.

The article is not only a typical SCI rant about how hunters “conserve” wildlife in Africa, but is also very imaginative with the truth. It is surprising that the National Geographic, an organization that seemingly had some standards in the past about what was published under their logo, allowed this unedited and factless pretentiousness to be given publicity. 

So let’s look at some facts first. Melissa quotes an article written by Jason Riggio and others to say that all is well with lions and they can continue to be hunted. That publication uses very controversial  data to estimate a total lion population of 32,000. What the authors did was use satellite images of the African savannah habitat, overlay that with human population density in those habitats, and then come up with a theoretical estimate of how much land was still available for lions. They then “extrapolated” lions into those areas. 

To their credit, the authors keep repeating caveats about their methods. They say that there is abundant evidence of widespread declines and local extinctions among lion populations. They say that their maps are their best estimates of lion areas (not lions), that, as ”best” as they can tell, “likely” have lion populations. They base their lion population extrapolations on data they admit is shaky. They admit that independently verified census data, using statistically repeatable techniques are the rare exception for current lion population estimates. They say that the lack of such census data is a striking omission in lion conservation and one that must be rectified if we are to assess not only the trends in lion numbers but our success in reversing their declines. In other words, their estimate of 32,000 lions is to be judged by the various categories of reliability of the data they used and should not be construed as what lion populations are actually on the ground.

However, the authors make a grave mistake in defining what they consider a “lion stronghold”. They base their number of 500 lions on a publication by Bjorklund in 2003 who mentioned that “…to sustain a large out-bred population of lions, a continuous population of at least 50 prides, but preferably 100 prides, with no limits to dispersal is required”. The authors then make two leaps of faith – they assume that an average pride contains 5 adults. That is a bit low, but let’s continue. They therefore define a “lion stronghold” as containing 500 individuals. However, the African lion population estimates are based on lions of all ages, not only adults. From my estimates, an average pride contains 15% adult males, 35% adult females, and 50% subadults and cubs. This would mean that a lion “stronghold” as defined by Riggio and co-authors would contain only 250 adults, a far cry from Bjorklund’s definition of 100 prides. 

Basically, a lion population of fewer than 1,000 individuals is not a stronghold. That would reduce the number of lion strongholds to seven and not seventeen as Riggio et al’s maps suggest. Further, the authors include highly dubious areas as lion strongholds – Angola (nobody knows how many lions are there), Chad and Central African Republic (failed states), South Sudan (???), the border between Kenya and Somalia (???) – wishful thinking. 

Undaunted by such detail, Melissa pushes on with her agenda. She quotes Dennis Ikanda of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute as saying that between 2008 and 2011, lion hunting alone generated $75 million for that country. Strange that, as CITES official records show that during that period 465 lion trophies were exported. That would mean, according to my calculator, that each lion hunted was worth $161,290 to the country in terms of income. Now that is a real eye opener. Have a look here for the trophy fees that accumulate to Tanzania for lions in 2011. Basically, the government earns between $7,000 to $8,000 per lion trophy, depending on the area where it is hunted. So the most the Tanzania government could have earned is $3.72 million for those 465 lions shot 2008-2011. A bit different from $75 million? Perhaps Mr Ikanda is confused about what his government earns versus what the hunting operators earn – the most expensive rate is a 28 day Rungwa “Lion plus full bag safari” at $105,950. That goes to the hunting operators Mr Ikanda, not to the government. 

Melissa then states that hunting employs 3,700 workers annually in Tanzania, and that those workers supported 88,240 families. Another eye opener! That would mean that a single worker in the hunting industry supports 24 families? How many people in a family Melissa? Shall we say 6 in Tanzania? So one worker supports 144 people? Please Melissa, tell us how that works because that could solve all the world’s unemployment problems at one stroke. Especially, Melissa, as those workers employed by the hunting companies are only employed during the 6-month hunting season – part time employees in other words. 

Melissa also states that hunting operators assist communities by sharing their hunting revenues. Actually, hunting operators maximally pay communities $4 per square kilometre per year to utilize their land for hunting. That is a pittance as those same hunting operators are estimated to earn about $110 per year from that same square kilometre in Tanzania. 

She then says that the Safari Club International has sponsored the annual African Wildlife Consultative Forum, bringing together representatives from sub-Saharan African governments for a week to discuss wildlife issues. I must admit that I only did a short search on Google to attempt to find proceedings and publications from these meetings but there are none. Such important meetings should surely be minuted and the results made public? 

Overall, this Opinion Piece lacks in rigour, truth, correct evaluation of papers quoted and goes wild on numbers. I agree with many of the people who posted opinions that this is pure propaganda. I would hope to see National Geographic do better in the future in terms of accepting such drivel. Or can we perhaps expect similar irritatingly shallow Opinion Pieces in the future about the need to hunt whales and revive the fur trade? 

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 11:48

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