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 Despite the last proposal by Kenya as a range state to upgrade the African lion to Appendix I in 2004 (withdrawn for lack of support), we believe an updated and more realistic assessment is necessary.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.