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Why are lions declining in Africa?

Saturday 9th January 2016

Declining lions

Loading the carcasses…

Let’s have a look at the four primary reasons proposed by a diversity of conservation organizations why lion numbers have declined in Africa:

1. Habitat loss;
2. Loss of prey;
3. Human/wildlife conflict;
4. Excessive trophy hunting (a rather reluctant new addition to the list via IUCN for example).

Let’s address each of those in turn.

1. Habitat loss. For sure, this could have applied in the distant past. But no longer. Today, we have about 15,000 – 20,000 lions remaining on the African continent (estimates vary as there are sadly very few actual counts). I looked at the protected areas remaining in countries like Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Kenya just as a sample of African lion range states. It would appear that those countries have 739,189km2 of protected areas versus a total population of about 3,076 lions. As another estimate, Riggio et al (2013) reported that lion populations occur across 3.4 million km2, or about 25% of the African savanna habitat. Using both measures of habitat availability and lion numbers, it would mean that that each African lion could have between 170-225 km2 to themselves.

Habitat loss is not a threat to lions anymore. Lions have more habitat than they could possibly occupy – that is one benefit of becoming an endangered species is it not?

2. Loss of prey. For sure, this is a significant factor – bushmeat poaching is out of control in Africa. I would estimate that the “bushmeat” sales are yearly worth in excess of $3 billion across the continent. Surprising? The trade in Ghana is estimated to be worth $250 million annually. In Ivory Coast this figure is $148 million annually. In Tanzania 2,078 tons of bushmeat are confiscated per year, meaning that the real volume likely exceeds 20,000 tons. Every year, about 160,000 animals are killed during the Serengeti migration by bushmeat poachers. In Mozambique, 182,000 to 365,000 tons of wildlife meat are illegally harvested, with a commercial value of $366 million to $730 million per annum. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the bushmeat trade is estimated to involve 1.7 million tons of meat. In Kenya, many tens of thousands of snares are recovered every year, but no overall estimate of the scale of the bushmeat trade in Kenya has been forthcoming.

Ten things you did not know about the bushmeat trade.

So yes, lions are losing prey and turning to livestock. But this loss of prey is a continent-wide problem and if national authorities want to protect lions then the bushmeat trade needs to be halted. Can this happen? Everyone is so concentrated on the illegal ivory trade that the illegal bushmeat trade, with all biodiversity consequences, seems to be largely ignored. Bushmeat poaching occurs in all nationally protected areas across Africa. Bushmeat is openly sold in local markets and in roadside stalls – even in upmarket restaurants in various capital cities. Reports indicate that bushmeat provides a very significant amount of protein consumed per capita in a diversity of African countries – up to 90% of households in some western African countries consume bushmeat.

3. Human/wildlife conflict. I believe this factor is confused, as often such lion conflict could be caused directly by humans. A significant reason why Africa is losing wildlife is the complete lack of landuse planning and the unwillingness/incapability of protection of wildlife in nationally gazetted wildlife areas.  Many African nations have established protected areas, but these now largely exist on paper. Even some of the best-known wildlife areas like the Masai Mara and the Tsavo National Parks in Kenya, the Serengeti in Tanzania and many others are subjected to massive livestock invasions and illegal harvesting of wood for the highly profitable charcoal sale (illegal national use and illegal charcoal exports are worth far more than illegal trade in rhino horns and elephant ivory combined – net profits from illegal charcoal use in Africa are estimated at $2.4 - $9 BILLION annually. Richard Leakey, current Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, admitted recently that about 800,000 cattle had invaded the Tsavo Parks. Daily, scores of thousands of cattle invade the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. Those national parks are simultaneously being denuded of trees to provide illegal charcoal.

Leakey admitted that all those cattle in the Tsavo Parks were there because the herders paid bribes to the rangers and wardens. So what are the lions supposed to do? Ignore beef dinners delivered on their plates every day while their natural prey is decreasing daily due to poaching and habitat destruction?

A variety of government and private initiatives have been established across eastern and southern Africa to compensate for and/or attempt to prevent lion/livestock conflict. Such programmes have a wide diversity of success rates and almost all are dependent on government and donor generosity along with a significant measure of tolerance from pastoralists living with wildlife. There is no comprehensive programme yet devised to address the concerns of pastoralists, and to date a number of individual programmes with different schemes and objectives have not been scientifically evaluated as to effectiveness and efficiency. Meanwhile, there is a realization that better herding practices, better protection of cattle at night in reinforced enclosures or enclosures equipped with lights, and a clear financial benefit to rural communities living with lions has paid some dividends.     

4. Trophy hunting. This remains a real and present danger to wild lion populations. Progress is being made via import bans of lion trophies to the USA and the EU, but apart from Kenya and Botswana, few African countries seem to desire their own lion hunting bans. Yet this source of mortality would seem the simplest to prevent – after all, shooting lions for trophies is only to satisfy the ego of the hunter and the pockets of the operators. Hunting has not been shown to prove any conservation benefit to lions. Hunter advocates, including major conservation organizations, have attempted to argue that trophy hunting benefits lions by making more territory available to them in terms of hunting concession lands. They have attempted to “prove” this for decades, yet still lions continue to decline in every hunting concession. Cecil was not the only lion needing to be enticed out of a protected area via baits…

So where does this lead us?

Conservation of African wildlife cannot focus on “one size fits all” formulas that seem the current vogue. While lions are beginning to be involved in the illegal wildlife trade in terms of cub smuggling to satisfy both the Middle Eastern pet trade and the demands of the captive lion breeding in South Africa, and  to provide bones for the Asian Medicine trade promoted by South African lion breeders, this is a recent phenomenon. Conferences and summits on the illegal wildlife trade (ivory top of the agenda) have called for funding for better law enforcement, demand reduction, and alternative sustainable employment for communities (the last has been widely ignored). Such conferences have NOT focused on issues like habitat destruction via cattle invasions and the massive charcoal trade or funding for better land use planning as wildlife conservation measures. 

If wild lion conservation is to succeed in Africa, specific needs for the species have to be addressed. These should initially include ensuring safe areas for lions in cattle-free nationally protected areas, reducing the illegal bushmeat trade pervasive across African protected areas and preventing massive habitat destruction via the illegal charcoal trade at least.

Comprehensive wildlife conservation should be comprehensive and not just focused on putting out a fire here and there. It will require African government will, lots of money and overall a much better understanding of the real threats.  

Picture credit: NBC

Posted by Chris Macsween at 13:18

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