Dangerous game. Hunting revenues give locals a reason to keep lions alive, but it may hurt the species more than it helps.
lions are one step away from becoming an endangered species, and a
measure designed to preserve them is to blame. A new study suggests that
hunters who pay to shoot the animals are killing too many of the big
Seventy years ago, the kings of the jungle numbered
450,000. Now the lion population has dwindled to less than a tenth of
that. In the 1980s and 1990s, African nations started to think an old
practice might hold the solution to saving the lion: trophy hunting.
They hoped that by allowing rich game-chasers to shoot a few animals,
landowners would have an incentive to conserve lion habitats and keep
the species alive while boosting their local economies. In the meantime,
it became conventional wisdom to blame the decline on factors such as
conversion of lion habitat for agriculture, disease, and killings by
locals upset over lion attacks on people or livestock. But the newest
research, to be published in an upcoming issue of Conservation Biology, shows that at least in Tanzania—home to more lions than any other country—that isn’t the case.
by Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, a team of
biologists took a closer look at the diminishing lion populations in
Tanzania over the last decade. The researchers analyzed the amount of
game brought back by hunters from 21-day safaris, the only legal way to
hunt lions in the East African nation. They discovered that from 1996 to
2008, the number of lions hunters bagged in Tanzania decreased by half.
It’s not that hunters are scarce: Sales of the wilderness treks have
risen by 60% since 1998. And the hunters probably aren’t deliberately
shooting fewer animals either, according to geographer Brian Child of
the University of Florida, Gainesville, who was not part of the study.
“In general, if they’re paying a lot of money, they’re going to be
hunting as hard as they can,” Child says.
This leaves only one reason the hunters are bringing in less game: There’s less game out there to shoot.
team looked at several explanations for the decline. Expanding
agriculture, disease, and retaliatory killings might all play a role,
but those threats paled in comparison to recreational hunting, according
to the team’s analysis. Shooting for sport was responsible for 92% of
hunters’ reduced success.
“I would not have guessed that
92% of the population trend would be explained by trophy hunting, and
these other factors would be so weak,” says Scott Creel, an ecologist at
Montana State University, Bozeman, who was also not part of Packer’s
The numbers are falling in areas where hunting is banned as
well. Populations decreased in three out of five protected areas
analyzed, including two national parks. Although the reduction in one
region (Ngorongoro Conservation Area) could be chalked up to an epidemic
and some unfortunate confrontations with herders, those problems also
existed in the few areas that saw their lion numbers rise or stay the
same. That rules out sickness or retaliatory killing as reasons for the
downward trend. According to Packer, trophy hunting can even harm lions
that live in places where it’s forbidden, because lions don’t stay put.
“These parks are not fenced, and so the lions can pass freely inside and
outside the park,” he says. “And if they are outside the park during
hunting season, they may be shot.”
Packer suspects that hunters
have been overexploiting the lions. Although he acknowledges that the
idea of hunting for conservation may work in theory, “there’s no point
in providing the animal with economic value and then over-hunting them.”
“But there’s a silver lining here, which is that trophy hunting
is something we control very directly. … We can decide how many we’re
going to shoot,” Creel says. On the other hand, “telling people who live
in poverty that they can’t convert their land to agriculture, that’s
suddenly a very difficult thing to accomplish.”
trophy hunters to shoot only male lions that are at least 6 years old.
Theoretically, this is better for the species as a whole than shooting
lionesses, but Packer and Child agree that even killing just the adult
males poses a serious threat. The country tries to cap the number of
yearly kills at 500 in a 300,000-square-kilometer range. Packer thinks
even a third of that is dangerous.
However, eliminating the hunt
entirely could be even more dangerous. "If you make hunting too
difficult, then people are going to switch back to cattle,” says Child.
“And then you’ll have no wildlife.”