Despite claiming to exist for the greater ecological good, Bubye’s primary point is trophy hunting

RECENT reports say one of Zimbabwe’s largest private wildlife areas, Bubye Valley Conservancy, is suffering from an overpopulation of lions. The conservancy has over 500 lions and has warned that its lion population has be-come unsustainable and that it may even have to cull around 200 individuals.

Bubye management have justified the proposed cull, saying the lions are decimating populations of antelope, along with other animals such as giraffe, cheetah, leopards and wild dogs.

Despite the many contentions by its management and owners that Bubye exists for the greater ecological good, the conservancy’s primary point is trophy hunting. On its website, Bubye states: “Sustainable trophy hunting provides the incentive and revenue to achieve this amazing conservation success — and for that the Bubye Valley Conservancy makes no apology?’

The conservancy boasts that there “are more lions at much greater population densities in hunting areas than anywhere else in Zimbabwe. Lions thrive when given the resources and protection incentivised by trophy hunting”.

According to a National Geographic post, Dr Byron du Preez, an independent scientist focusing on lion ecology at the Bubye Valley Conservancy, says Bubye is “hopeful that it will be able to translocate some lions but that its plans have been intentionally derailed”.

Du Preez, who says he is neither pro nor anti-hunting, states that “habitat destruction is the lions’ biggest enemy, and there is basically no more space left in Africa for a new viable population of lions”.

Michael Shwarz admitted in National Geographic last month: “The Bubye Valley is a business”. In other words, the more trophy animals that can be commercially bred for the bullet, the bigger the profit. The problem with this management model is Bubye becomes less concerned about conservation than it does about commercial gain.

Dr Pieter Kat, lion expert and lead researcher for LionAid, an international organisation specifically dedicated to lion conservation, says the overpopulation appears intentional.

Kat says the 3 400 km2 conservancy has about 15 lions per 100 km2. The natural density of lions, for example, in the Kruger Park is about five to six per 100 km2 in the north, which is similar in habitat to Bubye, and seven to eight per 100 km2 in the south. Bubye there-fore has more than double the natural density for lions.

According to initial research results by Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, Bubye’s high number of artificial waterholes has facilitated the population explosion of lions.

Trophy hunting is big business in Africa bringing in a revenue of $200 mil-lion (about R2,9 billion) and lions are one of the biggest earners. It costs around $50 000 to shoot a lion in Zimbabwe. Proponents of trophy hunting argue that this revenue goes back into conservation and community upliftment schemes but separate reports, by Economists at Large, the Interna-tional Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Humane Society International questioned the validity of these claims, stating that most of the money is for profit by private landowners and government officials.

Bubye’s chief professional hunter, Pete Fick, bemoans the fact that foreign hunters are no longer coming to Bubye to thin the lion population, a major rea-son they cite for the proposed lion cull.

In 2015, Australia and France banned the import of lion trophies while the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) included African lions on its endangered species list. The FWS decision doesn’t ban trophy hunting out right but as Ian Michler, the lead character in the documentary Blood Lions, said in an interview with National Geographic, “it now puts the onus on the hunters — they have to show how their lion trophy is making a contribution to the conservation of the species before an import permit will be issued”.

Fick views the FWS as “the biggest threat to most of Africa’s lions”.

The conservancy wrote a letter to the department requesting it to reconsider the listing, but the FWS stood firm. Its directive sends a clear message that breeding lions solely for commercial use is no longer acceptable.

Christine Macsween, director and founder of LionAid, asked in a report in January at a time when Bubye was raffling hunting tickets to shoot lions: “Are the Bubye fenced lions offered to trophy hunters’ guns anything to do with wild lion conservation?”

Macsween says the lions “live behind a 2,1-metre electric fence. The fenced lions do not live in any natural environment, and are there to be shot”.

She questions whether Bubye is just “another form of canned hunting”.

After repeated requests Bubye has declined to comment on whether the lions are fenced in.

Fick claims that Bubye is “the most successful lion story ever in Africa”, but Kat counters that in reality, “this cur-rent call to cull 200 lions is in recognition of past bad management procedures”. Bubye now realises “it has too many lions primarily because they are eating into their stock of other valuable hunting species”. It is poor conservation management and they are trying to blame the USFWS directive for the current problem. Ultimately, it’s the lions that have to pay the price.