Lions (and other predators) form a vital component to many of Africa’s natural ecosystems. Their function in structuring ecological systems is through their affect on prey numbers and behavior, both wild and domesticated. As such their presence in an area is deemed to be an indicator of its wild and natural integrity. Lions also play a critical role in the tourism industry, especially in protected areas that depend largely on mass tourism to survive. Protected areas (or national parks) are therefore at the core of conservation efforts to maintain these ecologically functioning populations. But the existing protected areas across Africa are not sufficient to conserve numerically viable populations of lions: it is vital that some conservation activities occur outside of the protected areas.
Some of these areas may border a protected area, or they may be some distance away. Circumstances often dictate that these areas are unsuitable for traditional tourism (access, lack of infrastructure, human populations, livestock, or physical features) and therefore cannot rely on traditional tourism as a primary source of income. To effectively conserve carnivores in this type of environment, especially lions, requires that the local communities residing in these areas perceive that there are tangible incentives and benefits. A variety of approaches are adopted to achieve this: specialist ecotourism, mitigating human – lion conflicts (e.g. building “lion proof bomas for livestock”, “living fences” constructed from thorny vegetation), various compensation schemes to offset livestock deaths from carnivores, law enforcement and the most controversial or all, sport hunting.
Sport hunting has come under attack by activists who claim that hunting adult lions leads to high levels of infanticide that will ultimately cause lions to disappear. Much of this research is based on observations from Serengeti in Tanzania (where there is no sport hunting) and other large protected areas, such as Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe (where lion populations rapidly recovered after a 4-year moratorium was enforced). The demise on the lion populations in these areas is attributed to “sport hunting” and the answer to resolving this issue is to ban sport hunting altogether or at least prevent lion trophies from being imported into the USA.
On the surface, the arguments advanced by the pro-ban fraternity appear to be powerful and convincing. But these arguments tend to gloss over the real issues of carnivore conservation outside of protected areas. They shy away from the facts that the real threat to lion populations is from loss of habitat, disease, conflict with communities that result in poisoning or other forms of retaliatory killings and snaring. They also tend to shy away from explaining the realities of lion biology and the fact that adult male lions will kill, injure and maim both adult males and females irrespective of whether there is sport hunting or not. And they shy away from exposing the fact that uncontrolled and indiscriminate “hunting”, especially of adult females, will result in population crashes.
Sport hunting targets mature adult males, preferably over the age of 5 years. Wild populations of lions residing in areas co-habited by people and livestock have not declined as a result of sport hunting this segment of the population, especially where the hunting industry is well managed and administered, and where communities benefit from this industry. Removing this incentive by enforcing a ban on hunting lions will surely place this important carnivore on the endangered species list.