What Will It Take to Save the East African Lion from Extinction? Hunting or Herding?

20 May
My Favorite Lion Photo, I took this on safari in the Maasai Mara in  2005

My Favorite Lion Photo, I took this on safari in the Maasai Mara in 2005


What, if anything can save the East African lion from extinction?  A hundred years ago more than 200,000 wild lions roamed freely over the continent of Africa but according to present day estimates a mere 32,000 lions (IUCN, 2013) remain throughout its forest woodlands and savannahs. More wild lions are found in the countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania than any of the other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa combined. Currently classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the wild lion has been ousted from over 75% of its previous habitats on this continent in the last century alone, making scientists and conservationists alike wonder if the “ King of the Beasts” is well on his way to extinction.

And the wild lion communities in Central and Western Africa have fared the worse. Experts believe that there may be less than 2,000 wild lions left in West and Central Africa, -a mere 6% of the total lion population identified as living in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2013.  This has prompted the IUCN to reclassify the status of the Central and Western African lion to ‘Regionally Endangered” due to the dramatic drop in its numbers in previous years. There are large areas in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and other locations around West Africa where wild lions have not been sighted for decades. In a ‘last ditch’ effort to save the remaining big cats in these countries from extinction, a new project, The Large Carnivore Initiative for West and Central Africa has been established through a joint effort among several international conservation groups

Many conservationists feel that the African lion can only be saved through an immediate and intense global effort led by the United States and the European Union but heavily endorsed by the United Nations. In 2011, five animal-rights groups petitioned the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the African lion as an “Endangered Species,” citing that “their numbers had continued to significantly drop due to habitat encroachment by humans, poaching, commercial hunting, and a host of deadly diseases.”

So it was surprising when Alexander Songorwa, Director of Wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, the highest ranking wildlife official in the country of Tanzania publically opposed this request in a letter to the New York Times’ Opinion Page on March of 2013. He explained in this open declaration that the revenues generated from Tanzania’s lion- hunting endeavors were critically responsible for helping the country both maintain and protect its current population of lion prides from extinction and would “threaten the country’s capacity to protect all of its wild lions.”

Trophy hunting is big business in Tanzania worth millions of US dollars in revenue to the country; trophy hunting safaris were responsible for adding over $75 million US to Tanzania’s economy between the years 2008 – 2011. And American hunters have booked at least 60 % of all trophy-hunting safaris in this country meaning that these hunters play an important role in providing the financial capital used to sustain wildlife conservation throughout Tanzania in the twenty-first century. The US dollars spent on expensive “safari packages” and “taxidermist services” literally support Tanzanian game reserves, wildlife management positions, and conservation efforts. According to Mr. Songorwa if Tanzania’s wild lions are placed on the endangered species list then American “Big Game Hunters” would no longer be permitted to bring the skins and mounted heads of their “kills” through customs once they had landed in the United States. Seems that displaying your animal ‘trophy’  is considered to be a significant part of the hunting experience so Mr. Songorwa is correct in assuming that these same men and women would soon go elsewhere to pursue “approved”  game.

But Songorwa claims that hunting the Tanzanian wild lion has not decimated its numbers as commonly thought rather it has saved the wild lion population in his country from extinction. He insists that Tanzania is home to the largest population of wild lions in the world.  He proposes that 16,800 lions, or 40 % of all the wild lions in Africa currently live in Tanzania, but 16,800 out of a grand total of 32,000 lions ( IUCN, 2013) living on the entire continent makes it more like Tanzania is home to more than 53% of all Africa’s wild lions if his estimates are to be believed. And he goes on to say “that although our hunting system is not perfect we have managed to keep our lion population stable and protected throughout the 26 large game reserves.”

According to Mr. Songorwa, Tanzania has already allocated one third of its land for national parks, game reserves, and wildlife management areas successfully regulating the hunting of wild lions for decades. All females and adolescent males less than six years of age cannot be hunted for any reason and the government recently made it a crime to kill any members of this subset. The killing of older males has also been limited to specific quotas based on the current lion population in each hunting area.  And he maintained that stricter laws on animal exports and safari companies have further helped the Wildlife Service to more thoroughly police the actions of Tanzania’s trophy-hunting businesses at the local level.

In a 2009 study, lion expert Professor Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota along with other colleagues from the US, UK, and Tanzania determined as a result of their research that the trophy hunting rate of big cats throughout Tanzania had consistently been too high. He predicted that the future population of lions and leopards in Tanzania would be seriously decimated unless fewer big cats were killed by trophy hunters each year. According to Packer, Tanzania currently allows about “500 lions and 400 leopards per year to be killed for sport across a total area of 300,000 km² which equates to 1.67 lions per 1000 km² and 1.3 leopards per 1000 km².”

Although Mr. Songorwa’s message seemed sincere enough it remains to be seen just how committed his country has been to the plight of the wild lion after all. And although changes in the hunt totals and exemptions based on age and sex that Dr. Packer recommended in his study were made by the Tanzanian Wildlife Service these new regulations have only been in place for the past three years meaning that all of these improvements could have been made “too little, too late” to effect the systemic change needed to ensure the survival of the lion population into the next decade. Plus there is a better than average chance that these laws and restrictions will not be followed in the more remote hunting areas. With hunters ready to pay enormous tips for the pleasure of the kill and guides earning pitifully low wages any lion is sure to be considered fair game at the end of a long and unproductive “hunting drive” no matter its age or sex.

According to Dr. Packer the government of Tanzania should be commended for seeking to improve their wildlife policies and their trophy- hunting operations and if they strictly enforce each one of his recommendations the decline in the current population of wild lions due to the effects of over- hunting should abate soon enough giving the prides time to increase their numbers. But Packer’s recommendations have not been adhered to all that closely to ensure the results he predicted.

Kenya has always looked at the revenues generated by Tanzania’s trophy- hunting operations with a jaded eye. Kenya has established many local “Lion Projects” over the years that collect and share lion data across the country and the Maasai, a tribe dependent on their herds of cattle have taken an exceptionally active interest in increasing the lion populations around the Maasai Mara, one of the country’s largest game reserves. The country banned trophy hunting back in 1977 and has no intention of following Tanzania’s lead. In fact, when I have been on safari in Kenya the guides have taken great pride in telling me that, “Kenya does not tolerate the killing of its wild animals by hunters for any reason.”

In January 2011, the government of Uganda followed suit requiring that the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) cancel all hunting concessions that had been previously granted to the major wildlife reserves citing concern for the “dwindling numbers” of wild animals in these areas. “Hunting is now prohibited,” Mark Kamanzi, acting director of UWA told the Ugandan press as he reiterated that the profits from all sports- hunting endeavors were not “substantial, had not stopped poachers, or helped wildlife reserves to better manage their resources”.

Other countries in Africa are currently facing the same critical decisions in regard to the future of trophy –hunting enterprises within their own countries. Zambia’s Minister of Tourism and Arts, Sylvia T. Masebo, announced in December, 2012, that specific hunting licenses would be suspended indefinitely as they had “been abused to the extent they threatened the country’s animal populations.” And by January, 2013 the Zambian government put laws into effect that banned all lion and leopard hunting, citing that these populations had faced a substantial decline in recent years.

Botswana has taken a similar pro-conservation stance as President Ian Khama pledged that, “the shooting of wild game for sport and trophies is no longer compatible with our commitment to preserve the local fauna” and instituted a country-wide ban on sports hunting that will began on January 1, 2014.

In the spring, 2013 a new report, Conserving Large Carnivores: Dollars and Fence, published in “Ecology Letters” by Dr. Craig Packer and other well-known lion specialists from around the world went even farther calling for the African reserves to be fenced in after maintaining that nearly half of Africa’s current wild lion population of 30,000 will die in the next 20-40 years unless drastic conservation measures have been put in place. These scientists recommended that the wild lion be fenced in to ultimately save it from total extinction.

According to Packer, “We’ve seen fences work and unfenced populations are extremely expensive to maintain.” Using field data from 11 African countries, the study examined the cost of managing fenced in areas versus unfenced habitats, and compared the lion populations living in both situations. The report found that in fenced-in areas: conservation costs were lower and lion populations remained larger. Plus lions living in unfenced territories were subjected to a higher degree of danger from their contact with the human beings living closest to them.”

Packer’s recommendation makes certain sense but before we exhale- is this solution a practical one? The cost of fencing in something as large as a game reserve is an outrageously expensive venture and these are third world countries. Many of these same African nations have yet to figure out a way to feed their own people let alone construct miles of fence line across wildlife reserves just to save the “big cats”. Even if they believed that fencing was the most cost- effective solution in the long run, how would they ever afford the initial monies?  According to Packer, “fencing in just the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, would cost upwards of $30 million dollars. And then more money would have to be set aside in order to maintain this structure. At a total perimeter of 17,000 square miles, the yearly bill to manage the fenced-in lion population alone would be another $22 million dollars.” Besides Selous is only one of 26 other national game reserves in Tanzania. And if, as the wildlife specialists tell us, one pride (around 25 members) needs around 100 square miles of territory to maintain an optimum lifestyle wouldn’t every East and South African country require an astronomical amount of fencing to see that the job is properly done?

As far as the future of the wild lion in Africa is concerned – it seems to balance precariously on one too many “ifs.” If the legislation and regulations pertaining to the killing of lions and the exportation of illegal lion skins were actually enforced; if people could no longer pay their way out of prosecution and incarceration for breaking wildlife laws; if government administrators and wildlife guides remained honest in the face of outrageous bribes and strictly adhered to hunting quotas; if the citizens of these countries gave the land belonging to the lions back to them and agreed to fence in the amount of land needed to support larger prides; if villagers ceased killing lions in vicious ways simply for acting like the carnivores they are. And lastly, if everyone in the world agreed to back off and give wild lions the room and the support they needed to thrive, then just maybe the lion as a species could survive. But even as I end this sentence – I have my doubts.


Kat Nickerson                                      Kingston,      RI     USA


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