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Lion trophy hunting can conserve lions?

Wednesday 7th December 2016

canned hunting ban


So says a report delivered to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) by David Macdonald and his co-workers at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). The report was commissioned by former DEFRA Minister Rory Stewart after an Adjournment Debate in Parliament requested by LionAid and delivered by David Jones MP in November 2015. After the debate, LionAid met twice with Minister Stewart. We suggested that the UK take two important steps:

1. Ban the import of all lion trophies into the UK as lion trophy hunting served no purpose in conservation of the species, and indeed that all available evidence from a diversity of scientific reports using data from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania Cameroon etc indicated clearly that lion trophy hunting was responsible for further population declines of a species already experiencing a frightening decline from other mortality factors. We asked Minister Stewart to consider aligning UK policy with those of the USA, France, the Netherlands and Australia;
2.  Provide specific funding to ensure stabilization of the few remaining large and future viable lion populations in Africa.

During our second meeting, Minister Stewart told us that we had “won”, but wanted to determine the outcome of the CITES Conference and to determine whether the UK could make additive positive progress by enlisting other EU nations to join with the UK.

Of course, other events took place in the meantime – the UK public voted to leave the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron was replaced by Prime Minister Theresa May, and Rory Stewart was re-shuffled to the Department for International Development.

But before he left DEFRA, Rory Stewart had commissioned David Macdonald to prepare his report.

LionAid participated in a “stakeholder meeting” with Macdonald to present our views on lion trophy hunting. We requested, based on the fact that LionAid was crucially involved in important aspects of the process, that we could see a draft version of the report before it was officially presented to DEFRA, and thereby be afforded further input. This is rather standard practice, but the request was denied.

Now that the report has been made public, we can understand why.

You can read the full report here:

Basically, Macdonald’s essay hinges on the following:

1. “…where trophy hunting is well-regulated, transparent and devolves sufficiently to the land managers, it has the potential to contribute to lion conservation, but in many countries, poor governance and weak regulation can lead to unsustainable trophy hunting”.
2. “The most strongly evidenced benefit of trophy hunting to lion conservation is that it gives lions monetary value, which can provide a marginal economic advantage to keeping some land under wildlife use that would otherwise more profitably be converted to other uses and thereby lost from the lion estate (at a time when this is already shrinking perilously)”.

In a nutshell, Macdonald clings to the notion (albeit modified by very many caveats) that trophy hunting of lions can be sustainable, and that by continuing lion trophy hunting, land for lions will be maintained rather than converted to livestock of agriculture.

But this is where he fails to convince us.

FIRST -  Macdonald has absolutely NO scientific information to support the notion that lion trophy hunting can be or is now sustainable. Simply because nobody has EVER conducted a study of lions in trophy hunting areas. All the information about the effects of lion trophy hunting on lion populations is therefore tangential and indirect, as researchers have only been able to assess the effects of trophy hunting on their study populations occurring within nationally protected areas. From such information, Macdonald should surely know that lion trophy hunting is costly to lions – for example, just one of his published papers on lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe states that 72% of mortality of “tagged” lions in his protected national park study area was attributable to trophy hunting.

Cecil was one of such tagged lions – killed illegally in a hunting concession bordering Hwange. Therefore, his contention that trophy hunting is in any way sustainable can be dismissed simply because he cannot provide any evidence of a population of lions living in a hunting concession that has been able to be maintained under trophy hunting offtake. This means that most of the content of the report that refers to “sustainable lion trophy hunting” is therefore conjecture and opinion, not science.  

SECOND, Macdonald attempts to link the cessation of lion trophy hunting to a substantial collapse of trophy hunting of all species, and therefore that wildlife lands currently “maintained” by trophy hunting operators via their concessions will be forever lost and given over to cows and crops. There is little evidence to support this. Botswana banned trophy hunting in 2014, and all former wildlife lands remain intact. In his report Macdonald attempts to massage a publication by Winterbach et al to cast doom and gloom. Perhaps Macdonald would like to present a more balanced view by speaking to Botswana Environment Minister Tshekedi Khama, as we have, who says that while the transition from trophy hunting has posed challenges, all land previously leased to trophy hunters is now making a positive transition to non-consumptive use and will not be used for agriculture. In addition, Minister Khama stated that non-consumptive tourism provides exponentially more income to government, more jobs to Batswana and more security for wildlife than trophy hunting ever did.
But in other countries, surely lions should not solely have to bear the burden of maintaining hunting concessions? In fact they do not. Most trophy hunters spend their dollars to hunt ungulates like buffalos, kudus, sable antelopes, wildebeest, etc. To pose that in the absence of lion hunting the industry will be significantly negatively affected is overstated.

So are other alarmist statements in the report like these:

“However, if there was no income generated by lions, communities could potentially wish to eradicate them from trophy hunting areas because they pose a threat to livestock in surrounding areas, and private land-owners might want to remove lions from their trophy hunting concessions because they predate other valuable trophy species”(Note that all such killing is illegal under laws in all African countries where lions occur, and these statements are purely conjectural.)

“From the viewpoint of lion conservation, generating benefits for local communities from trophy hunting of lions is important because it incentivises local communities to tolerate lions despite the threat they can pose to livestock and human lives.” (There is little benefit distributed from trophy hunting to local communities despite hunting operators’ claims of providing meat, schools, clinics, boreholes etc. Tanzania, for example, has made it mandatory for hunting concession owners to pay into a community fund. Few do. As a result Tanzanian community “tolerance” of lions is minimal despite lions being shot.)

THIRD, Macdonald cannot show that lion hunting actually benefits the conservation of the species. This is, at the most basic level, evident because no hunting operator collecting income or a government collecting trophy fees returns any of that money to lion conservation. So while Macdonald might “hope” that hunting conserves lions, he cannot provide a single example of a country where lion hunting income is used to specifically ensure conservation of the species.

FOURTH, Macdonald is overall joining the ranks of all those that accept that trophy hunting in the past was a big mess and led to gross overutilization of wildlife for short-term profit. But Macdonald’s solution is to call for reform by the trophy hunting operators rather than calling for stricter legislation imposed by governments of either the source or destination counties of hunting trophies. What Macdonald neglects to mention in his report is that his calls for reform along the exact same lines he proposes are at least 20 years old. For example, in Tanzania a reform of the hunting industry was called for by a 1995 publication of the Ministry of Tourism, Natural Resources and Environment entitled “Policy and Management Plan for Tourist Hunting”.
If the exact same proposals to engender better practices have been proposed and attempted to be brought into play 20 years ago with no change, why should we believe in them once again? The basic conundrum that Macdonald has is that while he seeks reform in the trophy hunting industry to embrace better practice it is not in the economic interest of the hunting industry to do so. Conservation is very low on their list of priorities as hunting companies emphasize profits above all else. Conservation, in fact, would reduce their profits by asking them to “voluntarily” reduce income by shooting fewer lions and other wildlife out of an abundance of caution not to overutilize. Also, hunting companies are not under any pressure from their clients to be more conservation oriented, and are similarly under no pressure from rent and profit seeking governments to take care of wildlife on their concessions. In fact, Tanzania offered 28 new hunting blocks in 2015, all on short-term leases.

This is clearly a formula for profit-taking rather than careful management of wildlife resources, and hunting operators are more than happy to take maximum profits along with governments. Macdonald might not realize it, but hunting operators are hard-headed businessmen wanting maximum profits. Similarly, he is dealing with African governments riddled with high levels of corruption that want money paid right now rather than taking a long-term and “sustainable” approach.

Macdonald actually realizes this as in a footnote in the report he says:

“…even undesirably unsustainable trophy hunting may, in the short term, ‘buy time’ in keeping land in the lion estate and, irreversibly, out of agriculture, and this situation, while infuriating and lamentable, may be more tolerable than losing the land to wildlife”. Translated – let’s keep trophy hunting going regardless of the cost to lions?

On the positive side, the report does make a few good recommendations. These include:

1. A call for reliable, standardised, and independently verifiable surveys are conducted in hunting areas to determine whether trophy hunting of lions is sustainable.

2. A call for an acceptance by the UK (and hopefully by extension other remaining nations allowing imports of lion trophies) of new US regulations. When we first met with Rory Stewart, he mentioned that he “wanted to take the USA with him” when he would make decisions on the standards for importing lion hunting trophies. Unfortunately for Rory, the US eclipsed whatever his considerations were going to be – in February 2016 the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that lions were listed on the US Endangered Species Act, and that imports of trophies were going to be subject to some stringent requirements. Like for example – a requirement that any country exporting lion trophies has to provide evidence that such lion hunting directly contributes to the conservation of the species. That was masterful. No bans, only justified regulations that placed strict requirements on the hunting operators and the countries that license them. Guess what – the US has not granted a single lion import permit since the ruling as the requirements are not met….

In summary then -

The Macdonald report falls short of any scientific standard of evaluating the consequences of lion trophy hunting on the survival of the species, as Macdonald simply does not have the data needed to be able to make such assessments.

Therefore, we would caution DEFRA for any future aims to use this report to continue to support the notion of “sustainable” trophy hunting of lions as contributing to the conservation of the species.

Posted by Chris Macsween at 17:21

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