Crunch Time for Lions

Lions are not the easiest of wild animals to count, at least not at the scale necessary to make important management decisions. And it’s probably for this reason that so few data collation exercises have been undertaken on the species over the past 60 or so years. According to the IUCN (, the first effort in the 1950s guesstimated that there were possibly more than 400 000 lions in Africa. By the early ’90s, however, the omens for the continent’s iconic cat were not good – the estimated total for the species had dropped to below 100 000. Two further attempts at a census in the early 2000s concurred with the lower number and, more ominously, indicated that a fair percentage of Africa’s lion population was still found outside protected areas where threats to the animals were highest.

Earlier this year, the report ‘Conserving large carnivores: Dollars and fences’ was released. The most comprehensive lion survey ever undertaken and involving more than 40 specialist scientists, it confirmed that the species is indeed facing a perilous future.

The decade-long study covered 42 sites across 11 African countries and was led by Professor Craig Packer from the University of Minnesota, US, with Drs Luke Hunter, Guy Balme, Andy Loveridge and Paul Funston among the co-authors.

The report warns that close to 50 per cent of the continent’s unfenced lion populations face extinction within the next 20 to 40 years, a conclusion supported by a survey released in 2012, ‘The size of savannah Africa: A lion’s view’. Its authors, J. Riggio et al., estimated the lion population to stand at 32 000 animals and be distributed in no more than 25 per cent of its original range.

The Packer et al. study lists a number of primary threats to lions, all of which are human-related. To understand the severity of the conflict equation, it’s worth taking a look at the population dynamics of the species on the other side: in 1950 the number of humans in Africa stood at 221 million, a total that by 2000 had grown to almost 800 million. The continent’s human population is currently 1.1 billion and is forecast to reach 1.4 billion by 2025 and 1.99 billion by 2050.

The present population and conflict dynamics don’t bode well for lions, and because of this the authors have reintroduced the notion of fencing as the best way to protect the species (see also ‘Good fences, good neighbours?’ in Africa Geographic May 2013, page 8). ‘These findings highlight the severity of the lion conservation crisis today and the limited choices we have to ensure a future for the species,’ says Luke Hunter, president of Panthera (, the organisation that specialises in wild cat conservation. ‘No-one wants to resort to putting any more fences around Africa’s marvellous wild areas, but without massive and immediate increases in the commitment to lion conservation, we may have little choice.’ The cost analysis also supports a fencing strategy. Lion populations in parks and reserves secured by fences are larger and more dense, and the funds required to conserve them are substantially smaller than for unfenced areas.

But, say the authors, fencing can only be an option in ‘ecosystems with well-defined limits’.

In open migratory ecosystems that also support communities leading a traditional way of life, alternative ways of keeping humans and lions apart would have to be found. One possibility is ‘intensely managed buffer zones’, the transitional landscapes in which lions often face a high level of persecution and hunting pressure, including trophy hunting.

Nevertheless, such zones carry sizable numbers of lions, as well as vital gene pools.

Protecting the animals that survive in them is going to be a significant challenge, and it will need coordinated efforts and substantial time and resources. ‘We have shown that it is possible to keep both humans and lions in African landscapes by reducing lion–human conflict, but it requires extensive resources,’ confirms Guy Balme, the director of Panthera’s Lion Program in Africa. ‘As the numbers of people and their livestock continue to grow in Africa, it is essential to scale up these programmes to avoid losing many lion populations.’

Significantly, none of the programmes to conserve wild lions include the controversial and misdirected ‘walking with lions’ operations.

Lacking both a scientific basis and support from researchers, such initiatives divert awareness and much-needed funds from legitimate programmes. ‘Although paying tourists may enjoy cuddling lion cubs, this approach does nothing to address the real issues that are driving the species’ decline and diverts valuable human and financial resources that should be devoted to ecosystem-wide protection where wild lions still persist,’ wrote Hunter et al in a separate paper earlier this year.

Anyone who wants to support lion conservation should do so through recognised scientific and conservation bodies.

Seeing the Light

Towards the end of last year the Botswana government announced that trophy hunting will no longer be allowed on any state or community land from the end of 2013. The ban extends to what is known as ‘citizen hunting’ for the pot and covers all species, including elephants.

And then in early January this year the government of Zambia annulled the tender process for hunting concessions in 19 Game Management Areas (GMAs) and cancelled all hunting licences and quotas for at least one year. It also introduced an immediate and indefinite ban on the hunting of lions and leopards and committed to a thorough review of the hunting industry.

These are extremely sensible stands and both governments should be congratulated for their vision. Although taken independently, the decisions are based on similar factors that clearly indicate a further loss of support for trophy hunting as an effective wildlife management option.

On the economic front, the contribution of hunting has always been overplayed. In most countries the industry has only a six-month season and the benefits delivered to local economies by the small camps, with their limited complements of staff and clients, are insubstantial.

The real money goes into the pockets of the operators and is often collected outside the home states.

In the case of Botswana, the photographic sector has steadily replaced hunting over the past two decades. In the process, the ecotourism industry as a whole has grown significantly and its comparative advantages have become increasingly evident. The government now has records relating to concession fees, employment numbers and opportunities, wages and taxes paid, contributions to conservation and a host of other criteria that enable them to make direct comparisons between the two industries.

In Zambia, where approximately US$3-million is earned annually from trophy hunting, Tourism and Arts Minister Sylvia Masebo said it loud and clear: ‘Why should we lose our animals for US$3-million a year? The benefits we get from [photographic] tourist visits are much higher.’ And as reported in a number of stakeholder meetings held after the bans were announced, remuneration to local people from hunting is simply not materialising; communities located within or on the borders of GMAs are as impoverished as ever.

The ban on hunting makes just as much sense when it comes to ecological considerations.

The primary claim in this regard is the industry’s much-touted anti-poaching role, but this is totally misrepresented. Poaching occurs in all protected areas and the intensity of it is driven by factors such as the prevailing socioeconomic conditions and levels of policing.

It is certainly true that the presence of tour operators and their clients acts as a deterrent to poaching, and while hunting concessions claim the same advantage, the protection they offer to wildlife is no better. If anything, it could be argued that whereas the hunting season lasts only six months, most photographic operators are in business year round, which translates into a far more significant presence on the ground.

In both Botswana and Zambia, the hunters have occupied concessions around the perimeters of national parks and reserves, and this is where the poaching starts. Further afield, Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve serves as a more obvious example of the connection between hunting and poaching. Almost 95 per cent of its land is parcelled out among more than 40 hunting concessions yet, as reported by conservation agencies and the Tanzanian government, thousands of elephants are being lost to ivory poachers each year.

Another spurious claim put forward by advocates of hunting pertains to the gene pool.

Rather than targeting the old and infirm, as they assert, trophy hunting is actually all about pursuing the prime animals within the gene pool of individual species. That is why record books are kept and why every operator aims to get as many entries in them as possible and thus obtain a marketing edge. The loss of established animals year after year hammers the breeding stock and is extremely disruptive to the social systems and behavioural patterns of the different species.

Given the existing pressures on wildlife in most protected areas, this is why trophy hunting is at odds with conservation. How can any activity that seeks to kill what everyone else is so diligently trying to protect be making a contribution?

When viewed comparatively, there is no contest as to which land-use option for nationally protected areas is superior. The money involved and a powerful lobby will no doubt keep hunting grounds open in some countries for years to come, but Botswana and Zambia, by breaking ranks, at the very least have laid down a marker to the conservation world – the role of trophy hunting as a conservation tool needs to be thoroughly reviewed.

Walking with Lions: Why There is No Role for Captive-Origin Lions Panthera Leo in Species Restoration

Is there a need for captive-origin lions in reintroduction?

Since 1991 well-monitored efforts to restore lions to areas of the species’ former range have been underway in South Africa and Namibia. All of these efforts involved the capture and translocation of wild lions (for a detailed description of methods see Hunter et al., 2007). By 2007 at least 37 reserves totalling 6,467 km2 had re-established lions using wild founders (Slotow & Hunter, 2009). The resulting lion population numbered .450 in 2007 and since then wild lions have been reintroduced into four additional sites, in Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Lindsey & Bento, 2010; L. T. B. Hunter, unpubl. data).

While the scientific rigour of post-release management varies depending on the capacity of site managers (see Slotow & Hunter, 2009, for a critique), population reestablishment using wild lions has been unequivocally successful. With 20 years of monitoring data informing the process, translocating wild lions to both establish new populations and supplement declining populations (Trinkel et al., 2008) has become routine.

That said, translocation relies on suitable wild source populations. Claims that ‘only six geographically clustered [wild] populations contain sufficient individuals to potentially serve as a source for reintroduction,’ (ALERT, 2011a: 17) are specious. Lion populations recover rapidly from drastic declines (Smuts, 1978; Munson et al., 2008) and even small populations withstand controlled removal without longterm numerical consequences (Slotow & Hunter, 2009). As repeatedly demonstrated by the South African restorations, successful reintroduction requires conservative removals from the source, typically one or two prides (or equivalent numbers of individual lions or partial prides) at one time (Van Dyk, 1997). This is easily sustained by even small wild lion populations and represents a compensatory, rather than additive, removal in a well-planned translocation. The original founders for the South African projects came from one large population (the Greater Kruger ecosystem) and two smaller populations (Etosha National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) that have remained stable or increased (IUCN, 2006; Ferreira & Funston, 2010).

Furthermore, secondary populations were subsequently created by translocating lions from much smaller, newly restored populations as they increased. Despite population control measures that included translocation, contraception and culling, 12 reintroduced lion populations established between 1992 and 1999 (i.e. those with sufficient data at the time of analysis) had a rate of increase of 1.18–1.71 (Vartan, 2002; Slotow & Hunter, 2009).

Removals for translocation would be problematic if they compromised the source population; for example, by increasing the likelihood of inbreeding. The risk potentially increases as population size decreases (Björklund, 2003) but, as for demographic parameters, risk can be mitigated by careful selection of founders; for example, by selecting dispersers or prides near the boundaries of protected populations, which suffer high rates of lethal control and low recruitment success (Van Dyk, 1997; Hunter et al., 2007).

Additionally, lion populations are highly panmictic (Dubach et al., 2005; Antunes et al., 2008) and marked inbreeding depression is known only in two isolated populations arising from extremely few founders: in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (Packer et al., 1991) and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi, South Africa (Trinkel et al., 2008). Such small, inbred populations would be a poor source, as would other small and isolated lion populations for which removing individuals could increase the likelihood of inbreeding among remaining animals. However, there is simply no reason to draw on small and/or inbred populations when other, more suitable candidate sources exist.

Disease in the source population is also a potential concern, given that the translocation of lions may also transport pathogens. Wild lions are host to a variety of viral, bacterial and parasitic pathogens but disease is rare in wild populations (Packer et al, 1999). The catastrophic 1994 and 2001 canine distemper virus (CDV) outbreaks in Tanzania arose from a perfect storm of climatic extremes prompting elevated Babesia coinfections that led to unprecedented mortality (Munson et al., 2008). CDV generally lacks clinical signs or measurable mortality in lions, and previous CDV events in that population were relatively innocuous (Packer et al., 1999). Other pathogens such as feline herpes virus, feline calicivirus, feline parvovirus and coronavirus are widespread in lions but rarely cause illness (Spencer 1992; Packer et al., 1999; Trinkel et al., 2011).

Two pathogens, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and bovine tuberculosis, are particularly relevant to the translocation debate. FIV causes an AIDS-like syndrome in domestic cats but it appears to be co-adapted in eight free-ranging species of Felidae, including lions, which are endemic with largely non-pathogenic FIV strains.

Low-grade pathologies are associated with FIV infection in wild Botswanan lions but elevated morbidity or mortality is not observed (Roelke et al., 2009). Similarly, although every Serengeti and Ngorongoro lion is FIV-positive by 4 years of age they do not suffer higher age-specificmortality than uninfected populations, and lions infected at early ages do not have shorter life spans than lions infected at older ages (Packer et al., 1999; Troyer et al., 2004).

During the 1994 Serengeti CDV outbreak, certain FIV clades were implicated in elevating susceptibility to co-infection with CDV but the effect was only marginally 20 L. T. B. Hunter et al.

© 2012 Fauna & Flora International, Oryx, 47(1), 19–24 Downloaded: 09 Jan 2013 IP address: statistically significant (O’Brien et al., 2012). FIV-positive Hluhluwe-iMfolozi lions were apparently unaffected despite recent exposure to the virus and significant inbreeding depression that could be expected to elevate vulnerability (Trinkel et al., 2011). Despite the lack of disease the presence of FIV is employed as an argument for preferring captive, FIV-negative animals (Guo, 2009). Even if FIV is ultimately shown to affect lion populations, FIV-negative wild lions such as those in Etosha National Park are available (also circumventing the considerable problems associated with reintroducing captive lions; see next section).

Finally, lions are vulnerable to bovine tuberculosis (bTB) caused by Mycobacterium bovis bacterial infection. bTB is an exotic livestock disease now present in much of Africa in which transmission to lions is via infected wild ungulates (Ferreira & Funston, 2010). The disease is poorly understood in lions but is believed to contribute to poor health in extreme cases. Thirty percent of the severely inbred Hluhluwe-iMfolozi lion population died from bTB (combined with malnutrition) in 2000–2009, although ,2% of outbred lions translocated into this population were affected in the same period (Trinkel et al., 2011). Similarly, the effect was considered negligible in the outbred population in Kruger (Ferreira & Funston, 2010). The presence of bTB in lions in southern Africa has prevented translocations, primarily because of veterinary restrictions intended to protect domestic livestock.

The widespread prevalence and limited health effects of most known lion pathogens suggests the risk of introducing novel diseases from wild founders to the release site is relatively low, especially if founders come from nearby populations (see next section).

We do not believe this should promote complacency towards the possible movement of pathogens, and any translocation programme must include screening for diseases. However, there is currently no evidence suggesting that wild founders are more likely than captives to be a source of novel disease in newly established populations. Indeed, wild animals are potentially less likely reservoirs than captives, which may be exposed to a greater range of exotic pathogens (see next section). In summary, there is a large body of evidence showing that wild lion populations continue to be viable sources for reintroduction exercises and we can find no reason to resort to using captive-origin lions.

What is the suitability of captive-origin lions for reintroduction?

Assuming a demonstrable need for captive-origin lions arises in future, would they be suitable for reintroduction?

Restoration efforts across a wide variety of taxa using wild-caught individuals are typically more successful than those using captive animals (75% vs 38%, Griffith et al., 1989; 71% vs 49%, Wolf et al., 1996; 31% vs 13%, Fischer & Lindenmayer, 2000). This is particularly true for large carnivores, especially those with complex social dynamics such as lions, in which captives are poorly equipped for survival compared to their wild counterparts (Breitenmoser et al., 2001; Jule et al., 2008; Clark, 2009). Furthermore, the impoverished setting of the captive environment may lead to maladaptive behaviour. Aberrant behaviours documented among captive prides intended for release have included males inexplicably killing adult females, necessitating removal of the males, and high cub mortality as a result of ‘failing to thrive’ and being kidnapped and killed by a pride female (ALERT, 2011b). Such maladaptive behaviours are unknown among cohesive social groups of wild founders in the South African translocation projects and would represent a significant setback in a genuine restoration effort.

The second, most significant problem with captive lions is one of origin. Ideally, founders should be genetically similar to the historical residents of the release site (Frankham, 2009). As specified by the IUCN Re-introduction Specialist Group ‘It is desirable that source animals come from wild populations. If there is a choice of wild populations to supply founder stock for translocation, the source population should ideally be closely related genetically to the original native stock and show similar ecological characteristics (morphology, physiology, behaviour, habitat preference) to the original sub-population’ (IUCN, 1998). Captive-bred lions may lack important local adaptations and, in the case of hand-raised animals, are selected for their tolerance of close contact with humans rather than by any natural selective process. Additionally, introduction of novel pathogens by captive animals could be catastrophic to wild populations (Daszak et al., 2000).

Captive-bred carnivores are exposed to an unnatural variety of pathogens from close contact with other captive species and humans (Williams & Thorne, 1996,Martella et al., 2007) yet they can only be screened for a limited number of wellknown diseases (and screening may fail; Trinkel et al., 2011). Accordingly, we agree with the IUCN (1998) recommendation that founders should come from similar or nearby wild populations where origin is unequivocal. In southern Africa a long history of private ownership of lions from various sources (e.g. ALERT, 2011b) has created a mongrel captive population that is not managed under accredited breeding programmes, which maintain lineages according to geographic and genetic provenance (Pfaff, 2003, 2010).

Based on their uncertain or hybrid origins alone, these lions should never be considered for release in or near established wild populations. This is especially germane in West and Central Africa, where the need for reintroduction is arguably greatest (Henschel et al., 2010; Burton et al., 2011). However, West and Central African lions are genetically distinct (Bertola et al., 2011) and are poorly represented in captivity (Pfaff, 2003, 2010), further Walking with lions 21 © 2012 Fauna & Flora International, Oryx, 47(1), 19–24 Downloaded: 09 Jan 2013 IP address: precluding the applicability of the lion encounter model there (Anonymous, 2010). Instead, the tri-nationalW–Arli–Pendjari Complex, with c. 500 lions (Sogbohossou, 2011), and the Bénoué Complex in Cameroon, with c. 200 lions (Croes et al., 2011), represent a viable source for potential wild–wild translocations in West and Central Africa, respectively, should opportunities for restoration arise.

Finally, even assuming some unforeseen need for captive-origin lions in reintroductions arises in future, we see no acceptable role for so-called pre-release training (ALERT, 2008, Lion Encounter, 2011) that demands close contact between people and tame lions. Any credible attempt to reintroduce captive cats includes stringent safeguards against socializing animals to humans. In contrast, the lion encounter industry relies on animals so habituated to human presence that they can never be released. It is questionable whether even offspring of human-socialized lions would be suitable for release but, regardless, the step involving close contact with people is unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. Untrained volunteers are placed in extraordinarily dangerous situations that have resulted in attacks, including fatalities (Raferty, 2011). Similarly, recent releases in India of captive leopards and tigers have ended disastrously, with both human and cat fatalities (Dattatri, 2011).


We find little of conservation value that justifies the use of captive-origin lions for reintroduction. The widespread availability of wild founders, in concert with the formidable challenges of reintroducing captive lions, repudiates any need for resorting to captives. The only restoration scenario we can envision in which captive animals could be useful is for regions where the lion is long extinct and captive collections hold the closest genetic match. This may apply for the so-called Barbary lion, which was extirpated from North Africa by the 1940s. However, it is extremely unlikely that pure North African founders exist, the captive population is small and inbred, and the challenges of overcoming .100 years of captive existence would be significant (Barnett et al., 2006; Black et al., 2010).

In conclusion, even under the best possible circumstances, breeding lions in captivity does little to address the root causes of the species’ decline in the wild. Resources and attention would be more productively steered towards securing existing lion habitat and mitigating anthropogenic killing of lions and their prey. This would help stem the rapid decline of the wild lion as well as enhance existing populations for further reintroduction opportunities as they arise (Hunter et al., 2007). Current proposals for reintroduction of captive lions contribute little to these issues and instead distract from meaningful efforts to conserve the lion in situ. Finally, given that no lions have been restored to the wild by this process since efforts started in 1999 (ALERT, 2008), a period during which hundreds of wild founders have been translocated successfully, it cannot be considered a model that should be widely adopted for large felids. For the greatest chance of success we recommend any future proposals to reintroduce medium–large felids with captive founders are modelled on the only two credible examples currently underway: the Iberian Lynx Conservation Programme (Vargas et al., 2008) and a strategy to establish a second in situ population of the Amur leopard (Christie, 2009). Both are characterized by meticulous planning and rigorous peer-review at every stage.


We are grateful to Howard Quigley, Tom McCarthy, Craig Packer and three anonymous reviewers for critical comments.

No Science, No Success and Still No Need for Captive-Origin Lion Reintroduction: A Reply to Abell & Youldon

Abell & Youldon (2013) claim that restoration of lions using captive-origin animals can contribute to in situ lion conservation, suggesting it is comparable to established methods using wild-caught founders. Their argument hinges on an attempt to discredit using wild lions to restore populations but they ignore the empirical record of longstanding success from this approach. Concomitantly, they produce no data or even a credible justification to support their subjective, impractical faith in captive animals as founders.

Contrary to Abell & Youldon’s implication we do not claim that ‘lion restoration programmes using captive origin lions are or will be failures’.We have little doubt that, if enough captive-origin lions were released, some may survive. However, Abell & Youldon do not provide a meaningful rationale to consider this a legitimate alternative.

It is spurious to claim that both captive-origin and wild-born approaches can ‘play a part’ when the former has wasted millions of dollars and years of effort, elevated the risk to lions and people, and has not established a single, free-ranging lion. We do not dispute that the approach may eventually do so but given the considerable drawbacks, and the evidence-based advantages of using wild lions, it is illogical and unscientific to pursue it. Our argument, simply put, remains that for every objective criterion by which reintroductions are planned and evaluated, wild lions are better candidates for increasing the likelihood of success.

We agree with the statement that ‘measures need to be taken to ensure the causes of the original decline or loss do not reoccur’. As we noted, identifying and preparing the release site, including mitigating the causes of decline, is an essential first step for reintroducing any large carnivore.

This applies whether the founders are wild-caught or captive-origin. Abell & Youldon’s attempt to discredit wild lion translocations by citing two cases where founders died of anthropogenic causes is a diversion. Do they believe captives would somehow be better equipped to avoid the same threats? In fact, carnivores reintroduced from captivity are more likely than wild founders to die of both anthropogenic and natural causes, or are frequently recaptured to avoid death (Jule et al, 2008). Similarly, we are surprised at their suggestion that nothing can be learned about translocations from the extensive literature and experience covering species other than ‘large, social felids’ (i.e. lions). This claim indicates a dismissal of science and lessons learned from the field in the attempt to justify an impractical approach.

Abell & Youldon’s lengthy discussion on disease and inbreeding issues shows little understanding of in situ experience. Again, they ignore a wealth of results accumulated from 2 decades of wild-wild translocation practice that has not produced disease transmission, mortality, epidemics or any other evidence of the risks they avow. Similarly, they apparently misunderstand our recommendations for managing disease and inbreeding risk when planning translocations, protocols that have successfully fostered population re-establishment (Slotow & Hunter 2009). Finally, they offer nothing to demonstrate that using captive founders, especially those of mongrel, opportunistic provenance promoted by private owners such as ALERT, is a preferable alternative (see Greenwood et al., 2012, for further evidence of the risks of exotic disease for captive carnivores).

Abell & Youldon conclude that ‘rigorous assessment and application of a range of effective conservation strategies’ will help save the African lion. We agree but regrettably they have produced nothing to show that their approach qualifies as effective. Simply bundling it with demonstrably practical solutions such as wild-wild translocations does not lend it credence. As with any approach we would expect to see a credible science-based rationale and peer-reviewed results that address the significant disadvantages we catalogued. Abell & Youldon’s response does not bring us any closer to those criteria. Opportunities for lion reintroductions are limited and make a minor contribution to the species’ conservation needs (Hunter et al., 2007). The quasi-conservation rationale of the encounter industry misleads the public and policy makers into believing that reintroduction is a panacea to the extremely complex challenges of conserving wild lions. Although paying tourists may enjoy cuddling lion cubs this approach does nothing to address the real issues driving the lion’s decline, and diverts valuable human and financial resources that should be devoted to ecosystem-wide protection where wild lions still persist.

Domestic Hell

In many ways, domestic animals are unfortunate creatures. Almost everything they do is for the benefit of another life form.

They exist primarily so that we humans can eat them, but they also carry us, clothe us, fetch balls for us, purr for us – they even win races for us. And have you noticed that many of them have such peculiar physical features? Just look at Chinese crested dogs, featherless chickens, pot-bellied pigs and even ordinary bulldogs. Of course, they look and behave as they do because that’s how they have been bred.

It began when the survival of humans was inextricably tied to the natural world and now, centuries later, the continuous process of crossbreeding and in-breeding for human-selected traits has reduced many domestic species to caricatures. There are whole industries out there that are dedicated to wheedling all the elements of wildness out of them, with the result that we now control every aspect of their biology and being. Our complete domination over animals we regard as pets fosters the sentimental love we have for them.

Our relationship with wild animals is entirely different. For many people it’s even more significant than that with pets, based as it is on an appreciation for their natural attributes and innate behaviour. And that’s also why wild animals have become integrated into our culture, our mythology, our psyche and our poetry in a way that their domesticated counterparts could never be. Wild animals display an authenticity that neither we nor our domestic cohorts possess.

They can run, soar or swim away at any moment. They are free, untamed, and for that reason we admire and love them with sheer wonderment. And yes, some of them also look rather peculiar, but their forms are distinctive rather than silly and serve to confirm that natural selection rather than human tinkering shapes their wildness.

But then there are people who love wild animals so much that they ‘feel the need to kill them’. I kid you not; some within the hunting fraternity explain that this is why they shoot an animal for the prize of a mounted trophy. There are even those who claim to get a ‘special feeling’ when pulling the trigger.

Trying to understand what lies behind these sentiments is for another discussion. The fact that this fraternity exists has led to southern Africa having a burgeoning industry that has begun the domestication process of many wild species. There is a growing band of farmers and businesspeople across the region who believe it is acceptable to manipulate the breeding of lions, wildebeest, sable, springbok, blesbok and rhinos, among other species – and there are authorities that allow this to take place.

Practices such as this raise a host of issues, but three substantive ones stand out. Firstly, there is no longer any justifiable reason to domesticate wild species; people continue to do so only because others are willing to pay substantial sums of money to hunt and kill the animals.

Secondly, controlling the breeding of wild species goes against biodiversity conservation principles as embraced by the Convention of Biological Diversity ( – and every country in the region is a signatory to this convention.

On this basis alone, it is inexcusable that genetic manipulation is allowed.

Thirdly – and this is the greatest farce of all – the hunting industry that practises inbreeding and cross-breeding is the very same one that has staked its reputation on selling Africa as ‘the dark continent’, where dangerous and wild animals roam. It’s a sick charade, in which breeders and hunters undermine the very essence of what they claim is integral to their business. Do these people – politicians and administrators included – feel no shame for the fraud and deceit they are involved in?

And, the despicable dishonesty aside, is no thought given to the long-term implications? It is not inconceivable that after a few generations of manipulated breeding (in lions it could take as little as a decade), animals will start to show first behavioural changes and then distinct morphological transformations.

Where Have All the Ethics Gone?

A few months ago, the south African press carried reports about a dispute between two ‘wildlife parks’ over the ownership of white tigers, one of which is going blind. It’s an ongoing saga, and although at first glance it seems to be nothing more than an absurd catfight, more careful reflection reveals it to be an epitome of a far more sorrowful tale: South Africa’s wildlife industry is sinking deeper and deeper into a state of degeneracy. The perception of wild animals as commodities is on the increase – and its growth comes at the expense of conservation, scientific and welfare considerations.

There are a number of aspects to the spat that emphasise this. Firstly, tigers – white or otherwise – do not occur naturally anywhere near Africa. Secondly, the two parties have no claims to be involved in the conservation of tigers or any other predator. And thirdly, it concerns animals of a rare morph that are unlikely to survive in the wild; indeed, the blindness is apparently a genetic disorder caused by repeated inbreeding. Inevitably, there are also links to the trophy hunting industry and breeding and petting facilities, as well as wildlife traders.

A summary of the evidence points to the two parks being engaged in some of the objectionable wildlife practices for which South Africa is becoming renowned. And instead of curbing them, the authorities seem either unable or unwilling to act.

How and why has this country become a haven for such practices and the criminal syndicates that feed off them? In my experience, the majority of the participants are representative of the old South Africa, and most grew up with a lifestyle that promoted the killing of wild animals as a leisure activity.

But while this serves as an explanation up to a certain point, developments over the past two decades indicate that something far more alarming and deep-rooted has taken hold. To understand what drives this thinking, we have to delve back into the apartheid era. In every way imaginable, apartheid was a violent system that sought to dominate and control all facets of life. It institutionalised prejudice, and there was no regard for human rights.

This archaic political and social thinking was in turn supported by an ultra-conservative religious belief system that still has followers today. According to the congregants, the scriptures separate mankind from his universe and in doing so legitimise any and every use of wildlife, for man is the master of all creatures.

The apartheid mindset reinforced this viewpoint and, if you were an adherent, the idea of superiority and the use of brutality to enforce it became pervasive. What’s more, the notion of animal rights had no place in such a tyrannical state. It was during this dark period of our history that the template was formed.

But such attitudes are not the only component. Colonialism and apartheid were also responsible for excluding South Africa’s nonwhite population from gaining access to and enjoying the country’s national parks and game reserves. The impact of more than 100 years of forced detachment from the wilderness was seen in the first years after independence in 1994, when the wildlife and conservation portfolios were relegated to the lowest rung of significance. The result was a vacuum in management, regulation and policing, which allowed opportunists within a burgeoning private-sector wildlife industry to flourish as they wished. When the government did become more actively involved, it embraced a wideranging transformation process that saw countless conservation officials from the old regime lose their jobs. Many were skilled and experienced, and quickly found situations in the private sector. Still bearing a sense of entitlement but now also disaffected and armed with inside knowledge of how the state and provincial systems worked, they set about exploiting the circumstances, at times with more than a hint of revenge.

I have spent a fair amount of time in this sector and whether dealing with operators or regulators, there is little evidence of what naturalist and writer Ian McCallum calls ‘ecological intelligence’. There is no moral or ethical view towards wild animals, and the notion of biodiversity conservation or a greater-webof-life thought process hardly registers. More recently, maladministration, inefficiency and a lack of funding on the regulatory side have exacerbated the situation. Given this, what do today’s practices tell us about the future of wildlife in this country?

While there are some exemplary private initiatives and the national parks still function in a state of good health, the possible collapse of the provincial reserve systems and the manner in which wildlife is being domesticated on private farms does not bode well. These stories also need to be told.

Botswana Gets it Right

News accounts about environmental concerns in Africa continue to hit the headlines and most, unfortunately, are negative in tone.

Given the general state of affairs across the continent over the past few decades, this could hardly be otherwise. The conservation and environmental record of most African states is poor, and in some instances even shocking.

Nevertheless, there are two crucial facts we should not lose sight of. Firstly, Africa still has substantial tracts of wilderness and most of them continue to carry a wide diversity of species and an impressive large mammal biomass. This is more than can be said for the Americas, Europe and Asia, and is the primary reason why so many people come to Africa for exceptional wildlife experiences.

So yes, we are battling to conserve, but we are relatively well off in terms of what we have left.

Secondly, some countries can boast remarkable achievements and there are positive stories emanating from them. Botswana is the prime example; it is no coincidence that one of Africa’s best news stories is the continued health and vitality of the greater Okavango Delta system.

Since gaining independence in 1966 the country has been better than most at managing and developing its wildlife resources.

There have, of course, been bad decisions and periods of poor management – notably the construction of veterinary fences in the 1980s and ’90s – but in general Botswana can be proud of its conservation record. It’s one that has been built on each successive government’s awareness of the country’s environmental assets and its understanding that a well-managed ecotourism industry is vital to the economy. As a result, low-volume tourism remains a core tenet in the strategies that dictate the management of the wildlife concessions in the northern regions.

Although visitors may end up paying more for their experience, the clamour and degradation seen in so many high-volume destinations across Africa is avoided.

Botswana has also taken the lead in promoting non-consumptive, photography-based ecotourism models rather than trophy hunting.

The example was set in the mid-1990s, when the Kayes family and other new concession holders chose to forgo their hunting quotas – and the income that came with them. These visionary pioneers have since proved beyond doubt that photographic safaris are more beneficial in the long term.

The government deserves recognition for having pushed ahead with policy changes that favour this non-consumptive form of tourism, despite the considerable pressure exerted by outside political and economic interests to keep hunting concessions open for the wealthy and influential.

Less conspicuous are a number of initiatives that will make a substantial contribution to the conservation cause in the long term. Community projects were a shambles until recently, but meaningful efforts to put them on a firmer footing are evident in the government’s introduction of educational programmes and proper trusts, and its promotion of sound joint-venture partnerships.

And a partnership between government policing agencies and ecotourism companies is challenging the growing scourge of poaching along the western edge of the Okavango Delta. Several schemes have also been set up to improve ecotourism standards and diversify the product base, all of which amount to sound investment in the people and wildlife assets of the country.

There may be nothing particularly remarkable about these initiatives, but there are two significant factors that set Botswana apart: a consistency of attitude and a commitment to action that are seldom seen elsewhere on the continent.

Given Botswana’s overall record and the global standing of the Okavango Delta, it may come as a surprise that this wetland wilderness does not yet have World Heritage status. Inscription was mooted in 1989, but no progress was made beyond discussion.

This, it seems, is about to change. Over the past two years, the Wilderness Foundation has been driving a widespread consultation and education process involving all government and private-sector stakeholders.

Support has come from every quarter and the nomination procedure is in its final stages. Success will be a massive boost for the delta, as designation as a World Heritage site will substantially increase awareness of it. This in turn will enhance its conservation status and add an extra curtain of protection.

If it Stays, it Pays

Trophy hunting associations in Africa and elsewhere have always claimed to be vehemently opposed to canned hunting – the practice of shooting captive-bred animals – yet you only have to analyse the latest CITES statistics on the import and export of lion trophies for South Africa and it becomes impossible to take their assertions seriously. From a total of 1 172 trophy hunting permits for lions issued in 2008–09, 707 were for captivebred animals. Moreover, 406 of these were allocated to US hunters, suggesting that the Americans are, by a long way, still the major supporters of canned hunting.

To understand the full picture, though, we need to go back to 1994, when records were first kept. Thirty-one hunting permits were issued that year; 12 years later the number had risen to 403, a staggering 1 300 per cent. Another two years on, in 2008, an additional 304 lions were hunted, representing a 75 per cent increase over the 2006 figure.

The trend clearly shows that the trophy hunting industry is ineffective at policing itself, and in the absence of legislation canned hunting will continue to flourish. In the first place, this is an industry that generates large amounts of money – and principles and ethics will not be allowed to get in the way of that. Secondly, any attempt to curb demand for this form of hunting, although sensible, is not likely to get off the ground. To do so would be to snub the dominant American market as well as Safari Club International, which is the primary marketing and sales house for trophy hunting worldwide – and that smacks of biting the hand that feeds you. Given this state of affairs, we can only hope that the South African courts will turn down the appeal lodged by predator breeders, who are trying to overturn the pending legislation that is aimed at curtailing their activities.

When it comes to wild lions, the picture is just as revealing. The statistics tell us that 465 permits were issued for 2008– 09 and again the Americans, with 351 trophies, topped the list. Crucially, these figures relate only to international trophy hunting; they do not reflect illegal killings or domestic off-take in African countries.

Nevertheless, they refute another claim made in hunting circles, namely that canned hunting relieves hunting pressure on wild populations. But this is not the case: statistics clearly show that wild lions, too, are being hunted in increasing numbers.

The 1994 number of permits issued for shooting wild lions – 128 – had risen to 284 by 2006, and 465 by 2008.

Remember that this killing is condoned – even sanctioned – on conservation grounds in order that wild lions may flourish. So what has happened to the general population over the same period?

According to the 2008 assessments in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the news is not good. They maintain that for lions ‘a species population reduction of approximately 30 per cent is suspected over the past two decades’. More importantly, a number of population studies concur that lion populations in protected areas (where hunting does not occur) have been stable, whereas those outside protected areas (where hunting does take place) have decreased. The assessments also mention that ‘a group exercise led by WCS and the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group estimated that 42 per cent of major lion populations are declining’.

Moreover, in a recent study by a number of predator specialists, one of the conclusions is that ‘sport hunting is an inherently risky strategy for controlling predators as carnivore populations’. The study’s findings also note that harvest data indicate that African countries with the highest levels of trophy hunting have seen the steepest population declines in lions over the past 25 years.

Again, the point is clear: the muchpunted benefits of trophy hunting that are supposed to allow wild lions to thrive simply aren’t working. And this undermines the validity of the hunting community’s favourite tagline: ‘if it pays, it stays’. I suggest that we adapt it to something more appropriate – like, ‘if it stays, it pays’.

A Conservation Con?

Earlier this year, the Free State High Court in Bloemfontein, South Africa, handed down its long-awaited judgement in the case between the South African Predator Breeders’ Association (SAPBA) and the former Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

In essence, SAPBA, which effectively includes the canned hunting industry, challenged certain regulations in a raft of new legislation that seeks to curtail the breeding and shooting of lions in captivity (see page 24 of Africa Geographic, July 2006).

The court ruled in favour of the Minister, dismissing the application by the breeders on all counts, including costs.

Readers of this column and past features on trophy hunting in Africa Geographic will be familiar with the pertinent points. In making his ruling, the judge reaffirmed that the predator breeders make no contribution to the natural biodiversity of South Africa and that viewing the industry as ‘abhorrent and repulsive’ would be ‘objectively reasonable and justifiable’. I wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments and welcome the outcome of the case.

But while the judgement is important in the bigger picture, it should by no means be taken as the final chapter in this lamentable mess. The absurd irony of it all is that because the original legislation did not advocate an outright ban, which would have immediately outlawed both the breeding and the hunting of predators, the parties continue to argue in the courts over how and under what conditions thousands of lions are to be bred for killing.

And this as the species faces severe conservation threats in the wild, both in South Africa and across the continent.

In the meantime, the industry still needs to be held in check, and in this respect it is necessary to draw a clear distinction between the breeders and the hunters.

As far as the former are concerned, the new legislation is only a first step. Implementing and policing it, and ensuring that there is both the will and the means to prosecute, are going to be crucial. If breeding is allowed to continue, we will have to deal with the consequences of domesticating species that are integral to the definition of ‘wildness’, ‘wilderness’ and ‘natural ecosystems’. If the legislation is successful, we will have to face the highly contentious issue of what is to be done with thousands of caged lions and other predators.

Even more complex than the breeding issue is the one of hunting; not only are there millions more hunters around the world than there are breeders, but they attempt to draw distinctions between themselves on the basis of how they kill.

Most conservation agencies and ecotourism operators do the same: they oppose canned hunting, but many still support trophy hunting. How do these groups distinguish between the two and is there any merit to their distinctions? Why is shooting wild animals in a cage viewed as unacceptable, while killing off the gene pool in a wilderness area is lauded?

Aren’t all hunters merely members of the same extended fraternity? The so-called ‘fair chase’ hunting groups in South Africa certainly cannot claim to have been outspoken against canned hunting. And it is quite conceivable that a hunter who fails to bag his Big Five trophy in Botswana will end his safari with an easy captive-bred kill in South Africa.

It is inevitable that a total review of trophy hunting and its future application in conservation will be one of the next great wildlife management debates. With the outcome of this court case and the recent public debates about hunting in and around South Africa’s national parks and reserves, now is the time for this review to begin. A thorough reassessment would require a multi-disciplinary approach, involving much research and evaluation.

To this end, all major role-players from conservation agencies active in Africa – including the IUCN, government, NGOs and the greater safari and ecotourism community – would need to participate.

It is my suspicion that trophy hunting will in time be exposed as having been more of a conservation con than an effective wildlife management tool. In the meantime, I advocate that Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game and the Safari Club International Record Book be discontinued. These trophy hunting bibles promote the shooting of what everyone else is trying to protect.

A Fair Chase?

Within Botswana’s ecotourism industry, word is in the air that the trophy hunting sector is about to undergo a major review. No changes have been officially proclaimed yet, but indications that they are in the offing have come from the Botswana government in a number of telling statements made at public and private meetings. How far will the changes go? Talk varies from a total ban on trophy hunting, which at this stage is unlikely, to the industry being marginalised into buffer zones or private ranching facilities, and quotas being cut.

Protest as it might at possible changes, the industry will have only itself to blame if major changes are made. More than 40 years of hegemony have brought few benefits other than large profits to the operators. They, meanwhile, have shown a total disregard for self-regulation and policing their own, and have instead always rallied around the rotten. True, there are some ethical and sound professionals within the community, but they now stand condemned with the rest.

Whatever form the changes may take, the government should be applauded for pursuing more sustainable and beneficial land-use options within the country’s prime wilderness regions.

Across the border in South Africa, an incident recently occurred that, while seemingly insignificant, may be seen as a small marker in the broader trophy hunting debate. Earlier this year, one of the country’s largest corporate institutions cancelled an organised hunting trip for its clients because of complaints received from other clients and anti-hunting groups.

As reported in a local newspaper, the corporate had invited ‘a select group of five clients’ on a ‘client relationship-building trip’ to hunt animals. Not that long ago there would have been little or no opposition to such an excursion, and this same institution would most certainly have thumbed its nose at any outside interference in company activities.

While these events in South Africa and Botswana by no means signify the imminent demise of trophy hunting globally, they certainly point to a shift in attitude.

General awareness of the realities of trophy hunting is growing, and the hunting community can no longer assume that the age-old justifications for what it does remain cast in stone. The pro-hunting lobby, once so dominant and influential and at the same time so disparagingly dismissive of any contrary opinion, has lost its monopoly on the debate. It is going to have to realise that it is both logical and legitimate – a fair chase if you like – to challenge the conventional wisdom of the industry on various fronts.

Firstly, the consumptive utilisation model, especially the version practised on the ground, has major shortcomings. And the premise of financial gain does not necessarily justify economic activity: think whaling, slavery, drugs, pornography and the tobacco industry. Is there no other way to conserve and protect our wildlife than by allowing the gene pool to be auctioned off to the highest bidder? Is this the only language we know, the only solution we have?

Certainly, the principles of consumptive utilisation still sit firmly entrenched in the constitutions of most global conservation bodies and their guardian, the IUCN, but that does not absolve them from scrutiny.

Secondly, trophy hunting nowadays has little to do with fair chase. How can it, when the human participants enter the field armed with sophisticated highpowered weaponry, including telescopic sights, and with GPS and other satellitepositioning gadgets, often in robust 4×4 vehicles or using microlights or helicopters?

The trophy hunting of today, which includes canned and put-and-take hunting, bears little resemblance to the hunting of a hundred years ago. The colonial notion of trophy hunting as a brave profession and a noble sport is long gone.

And thirdly, there are the purely philosophical, sociological and ideological sides to the debate: the topics that the hunting fraternity is most ill at ease with. Given our substantially increased knowledge of genetics, biology and the inter-relatedness of species, these questions are extremely relevant and the answers we give ever more telling. Why should we not be entitled to ask the question: how appropriate is it that we kill large numbers of wild animals for fun?