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Response to unconfirmed reports of a proposal to upgrade lions to CITES Appendix I

David Youldon


ALERT has received a circulating draft document to upgrade the African lion to the CITES Appendix I category of “threatened with extinction”. CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES was established to reduce the export and marketing of a variety of species as a contributory factor to their further decline as a result of commercial use. All import, export, and re-export and introduction of a variety of species thus necessitate agreement by a licensing system. Each Party to the Convention (State) must designate one or more Management Authorities (usually a wildlife department) in charge of administering that licensing system and one or more Scientific Authorities (designated by the State) to advise them on the effects of trade on the status of the species. Any trade in specimens of species designated as Appendix I is permitted only in exceptional circumstances according to CITES.

Commercial trade in species is an industry earning billions of dollars per year. This trade includes valuable plants like rare orchids and cactuses, invertebrates like snails whose shells are worth tens of thousands of dollars to collectors, and reptiles like lizards and snakes sold all over the world. Rainforest trees are being decimated for the value of their wood. Valuable birds like rare parrots are sold for thousands of dollars, as are rare marine and aquarium freshwater fish. Commercial products of endangered and vulnerable mammals include skins of leopards, lions, and tigers, elephant and narwhal tusks, rhino horns, and a surprising variety of animal parts sold as traditional Chinese medicine components such as tiger penises and powdered bones and horns of various species.

All in all, the demand for animal products all over the world is growing against a great reduction in available supply through many factors including commercial trade.

So where does the African lion fit in this equation? And what should ALERT’s stand be in terms of the lion upgrade to CITES Appendix I?

We at ALERT believe the category of “threatened with extinction” is overall appropriate for lions in Africa. We base this on several factors:

1. Lions have already lost approximately 83% of their past African continental range.
2. Continental lion numbers recently published were largely based on guesses and estimates. In countries where reasonable estimates were delivered, populations have continued to decline significantly since the 2002 estimates.
3. Despite the last proposal by Kenya as a range state to upgrade the African lion to Appendix I in 2004 (withdrawn for lack of support), we believe an updated and more realistic assessment is necessary.
4. The need for this updated assessment should be based on the continued and dramatic decreases reported in important lion range states such as Kenya, Botswana, Uganda, and Tanzania.
5. It should be realized that only six lion populations on the entire continent have sufficient numbers of individual lions to ensure evolutionary potential: (1) Maasai Steppe and (2) Serengeti/Mara (both stretching from northern Tanzania to southern Kenya, populations in decline), (3) Selous/Niassa (southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, Niassa populations perhaps stable, decline in Selous), (4) Western Tanzania (populations in decline), (5) Kruger National Park (South Africa, populations in decline), and (6) Okavango (Botswana, populations in decline).
6. That we believe new solutions need to be found to lion conservation efforts perhaps facilitated by an upgrade of the African lion to Appendix I.

Nevertheless, we do not believe that an upgrade of the CITES status of African lions will do much to address the continuing decline in numbers of this species, excepting perhaps the more rigorous control of trophy hunting that would be imposed, and perhaps greater efforts by range states to better document remaining lion numbers. CITES regulations have not been overall effective in the past for any species, and we have no confidence that they will be for lions in the future. The many loopholes and avoidance of international regulations by exporters is rife.

Despite considerable media attention about the dramatic decline in lion populations across Africa in past years, positive action by range states to halt and perhaps reverse the decline has remained minimal. This is where the real action needs to occur, perhaps aided by IUCN and CITES recommendations, but more importantly by the will of the range states themselves.

We should be clear about the causes of declines in lion populations, and what can be realistically done about them.

Conflict with humans and livestock. It is a fact that Africa’s growing human population and associated livestock populations have caused great problems for the survival of dangerous predators like lions. For the same reasons bears, wolves, lynxes and pumas were destroyed in north America and Europe. Lions are destroyed intentionally by either direct or indirect methods such as poisoning. Recent data from Kenya estimate that over 100 lions are destroyed per year; data from Botswana indicate that 68 lions were destroyed in a relatively small area bordering the Moremi Game reserve over a period of four years. Such destruction is ongoing and persistent despite some legislation prohibiting this killing. Prosecution of individuals involved is practically non-existent.

Loss of habitat and natural prey. Expanding human populations have appropriated land that used to be available to wildlife. Such land was either not protected for wildlife in any way, minimally protected, lost effective protection status by lack of enforcement, or was abandoned by wildlife authorities unable to operate during times of civil strife. Lion prey species are also attractive for human consumption, and utilization of game is rife throughout Africa. Such utilization is largely illegal, but has assumed commercial proportions in the past and present, and prosecution is practically non-existent.

Trophy hunting. Recent studies have shown that lion populations in areas in which trophy hunting has been permitted by government authorities have severely declined even in the absence of factors mentioned above. Commercial utilization of wild lion populations is a highly political issue with many proponents and dissenters, but is largely allowed by governments as a venture to deliver capital. Despite some scientific efforts to ameliorate rates of offtake and (doubtful) guidelines for hunters to identify “post reproductive” males, trophy hunting has never been shown to be a sustainable venture, and is known to have many abuses. These include luring lions out of protected areas, exceeding and influencing quota systems, ignoring consequences on reproduction of lion populations by destroying pride males, and taking young males out of the future reproductive pool.

Lions outside protected areas. Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Mozambique and possibly other lion range states still maintain many lion populations living outside strictly protected areas. There have been proponents who claim that trophy hunting in such areas could provide local communities with income to prevent their destruction by poisoning and other means. In reality, local communities are against maintenance of any predator that threatens human lives and livestock, and they are also against any maintenance of wildlife that threatens crops and agriculture. Despite claims by conservation organizations to the contrary, this is the truth on the ground according to our interviews.

Western vs African views of lions. Western countries would like to maintain the biodiversity of African wildlife. African countries are not so sure, and would like to see direct commercial benefit to such maintenance, as wildlife populations often enter into direct and significant conflict with human populations, their livestock, and agricultural crops. Tourism and hunting are presently the only income generators for countries that maintain wildlife, but such income is currently distributed in ways largely beneficial to the tourism and hunting companies. In other words, the companies reap large benefits and the range countries get peanuts.

Media attention to lions. The foreign media, and to some extent the local African media often report on the seemingly inexorable decline in lion numbers. While this generates attention, the international and especially the African public await local action and locally relevant solutions.

ALERT would like to propose the following:

1. African range states must decide where to conserve lion populations. If this is to be restricted to protected areas, such populations must be protected by enforcement of available wildlife laws.
2. African range states must provide buffer areas around protected areas to ensure secondary levels of protection according to available wildlife laws.
3. African range states need to be seriously committed to independent and locally relevant lion conservation programs. If such programs are to be restricted to designated conservation areas, the range states need to announce such goals in a transparent fashion and provide clear programs by which lion protected populations will be maintained.
4. African range states must assume independent responsibility for documentation of lion numbers within their borders. This implies careful and sovereign consideration of population assessments delivered by parties currently involved in estimation of lion numbers that might have possible vested interests.
5. African range states should vigorously prosecute any transgression against wildlife laws without prejudice or influence. Delinquency in enforcement is the means by which a current scofflaw contingent continues to reap considerable financial benefits. This includes a growing trade in wildlife products for Chinese traditional medicinal purposes.
6. African range states should carefully evaluate issued quotas for lion trophy hunting based on a need for long-term conservation of the species rather than short-term financial gain for hunting companies and, minimally, national coffers.
7. African range states should optimally devise relevant conservation plans for lions in anticipation of, and with better local relevance to, those imposed by international agencies. This will entail effort and commitment, but will result in national plans with a better chance of enforcement.
8. Most importantly, African range states need to carefully and independently assess their commitment to the survival of the African lion. This will entail a difficult program to balance human population demands against wildlife conservation needs. This decision should not only rest on economic concerns alone, but should also include heritage, biodiversity, culture, and quality of life for citizens.

ALERT, while supporting international recommendations, will therefore also be a demanding proponent for relevant African solutions. After all, it is our wildlife heritage, our need to protect and conserve, and our solutions that will be relevant to how wildlife populations are responsibly managed in the future.

We are convinced this is the only positive way forward.

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The statement above addresses the fundamental issues facing conservation, and the need to move beyond the tried and trusted yet largely ineffective institutions of conservation.

Any initiative that seeks to highlight the continued loss of biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa is welcome. However, the simple fact of the matter is that the listing of any species on the CITES appendix I is of little consequence in and of itself without actual practical implementation of initiatives “on the ground”. Such initiatives will more than likely need to be operated by dedicated bodies acting at the local level but incorporating networks that cross both borders and disciplines. They will have to be self-financing and autonomous in order to negotiate the mine-field of bureaucracy and self-interest that continues to dog the field of conservation. Furthermore, for conservation to be successful, actors will need to forgo dogma and ideological standpoints and be prepared to embrace innovative proposals in order to, at the very least, maintain minimum levels of biodiversity while the African continent continues to face the challenges posed by the demands of human development and globalisation.

The people of the African continent, be they pastoralists, politicians, entrepreneurs or shop-assistants are faced with so many challenges that, like the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, preserving wildlife in rural areas is of little importance in their daily lives. Sub-Saharan Africa is a continent that continues to experience great social, economic and political upheaval with little chance of this changing within the next twenty to thirty years. That is not to say that stability and indeed prosperity cannot be achieved, however, from a conservation perspective the current estimated rate of biodiversity loss means that we simply can’t wait for African states to become the next generation of tiger economies.

Take for example the obvious issue of human population growth. The human population of the African continent is estimated to have grown from 110 million in 1850 to today’s current estimate of 1 billion; this inevitably is increasing the pressure on the continents natural resources. However, the problem is not population growth per se but rather the social and economic issues that have both driven and arisen from this population growth such as the wholesale restructuring of social, political and economic frameworks. The creation and collapse of post-colonial states, international geo-politics, partially implemented and uncoordinated development initiatives, the elite capture of wealth and influence, coupled with the HIV pandemic and other infectious disease have all impacted on population demographics and structure. Thus today, sub-Saharan Africa is home to an increasingly urbanising, young population that on the one hand represents huge potential in terms of presenting a key human resource pool for economic development and yet also presents very significant challenges not least in terms of natural resource management.
The key aspect of population growth for conservationists is how changing demographics will impact on agricultural policy and practices. While West African states such as Niger have experienced recent success in increasing agricultural yield whilst simultaneously increasing forest cover tenfold since the 1970s East African states such as Kenya face increasingly uncertain futures in terms of delivering the agricultural output necessary to feed and fuel growing, urban based populations whilst maintaining eco-systems that provide crucial natural services. For example, Nairobi’s water resources are under increasing risk as the Mau forest is exploited for fuel. Furthermore, the pressure on agricultural production in east and southern Africa is thought likely to increase as the effects of anthropogenic climate change kick in over the coming decades. This environmental change will likely result in increasing pressure on currently protected areas as the demand for the exploitation of fertile lands increases as vast areas of land currently under agricultural production become too dry for sustained large scale utilisation.

In order to address the current situation and likely future predicament facing agricultural production and thus biodiversity conservation in sub-Saharan Africa innovative, cross-discipline partnerships and initiatives will be required across the spectrum of stakeholders affected from rural farmers to young urban mothers. New technologies will have to be adopted from high tech options such as improved pest resistant seed, and greater role out of mobile phone and internet communications to basic but essential tools such as biofuel cookers in order to meet the challenge of demographic and environmental change.
Crucially, what must not be done is the dismissal of innovation in natural resource management. Now is not the time to depend on the old staples of addressing the loss of biodiversity through the dissemination of appendices of species on the brink of extinction to disinterested government departments, or discuss them ad-infinitum in academic seminars. Now is the time for practical engagement with all parties affected by environmental change embracing all the tools available to us so that when Africa achieves its potential there will still be the iconic natural wonders that have enthralled generations and lie at the ecological and cultural heart of the continent.

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