Hunting for Sustainability: Lion Conservation In Selous Game Reserve
October 2014, Volume 12-5-II

Trophy hunting and lions inspire extreme opposite reactions. Hunters feel that trophy hunting is essential to conservation or stewardship of wilderness areas; while animal rights people feel that trophy hunting in the name of conservation is a madness that should have been banned long ago. Similarly, lions are either magnificent beasts, the ‘king of the jungle,’ which people are willing to pay substantial amounts to see or shoot; or they are a bane to society killing livestock and people. Occupying the middle ground on trophy hunting and lions can be a lonely place to be.

In 2006, the opportunity to indulge two of my chief interests, namely, lions and sustainable resource use as a tool in conservation, presented itself, and I began a study on lions in Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania (access the completed PhD thesis, submitted in 2010, here).  Since 2011, I have been working in Selous GR in various capacities. Over the next few pages, I will summarize some of my PhD study’s key findings and at the end, bring discussions up-to-date.

Lion trophy hunting is very topical at the moment, with diverse interested parties awaiting the decision of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on the listing of lions for import of trophies into the USA. These interested parties range from the government of Tanzania, American hunters, the Tanzanian hunting industry, conservation groups, and animal welfare groups. It is my opinion that well regulated, managed and transparent trophy hunting has an important role to play in the conservation of wildlife populations and areas in Tanzania. The key question is whether trophy hunting is well regulated, managed and transparent in Tanzania? And if not, what can be done to make it so?

Background to Lions, Conservation, and Hunting in Tanzania

Tanzania has more lions than any other country, supporting between half and a third of the remaining free-ranging wild lion population. Tanzania has achieved this through a sensible approach of pursuing both photographic tourism and hunting tourism, and has to be commended for setting aside so much of its land for wildlife (some 30% of the country). Only some 15% of this wildlife area is reliant on photographic tourism to fund its conservation and protection, the other 85% is reliant on trophy hunting. While photographic tourism can make much more money than hunting tourism per unit area (in some cases up to 40 times as much), you need many more visitors and the infrastructure to support these numbers of visitors. You also need the attractions to bring in the visitors, and much of the more scenic wilderness areas of Tanzania are already set aside for photographic tourism (e.g. Serengeti, Ngorongoro, etc.) – they make more money. Hunting seems a sensible option in areas that are very woody (hard to see animals), have fewer animals, or are too inaccessible.

Hunting in Tanzania is permitted through the issuance of a license by the Director of Wildlife, and a total of 74 species of big game can be hunted by tourists.  Hunting areas are divided up into hunting blocks or concessions which are leased to hunting companies who are responsible for organising the hunting safaris and attracting tourists. Each hunting block has a quota of animals that may be hunted. This quota is, in general, set through educated guesswork, but hunting companies still have to achieve 40% of their quotas or face fines and penalties. Much has been written about the negative consequences of infanticide on lion populations if the breeding pride males are constantly removed through trophy hunting, and suggestions have been made to only hunt older males. Such suggestions of only hunting males above six years old would do away with the need for a quota system, but would require the ability to accurately age lions in the field (for more info, see Whitman et al., 2004).

The Selous (SGR) is Africa’s largest and oldest protected area. It is internationally designated as a World Heritage Site and has developed a considerable reputation as a tourist hunting destination. However, two of the SGR’s 47 hunting blocks were set aside for non-consumptive or photographic tourism in the 1960s, and in 2003 two more blocks were added to the photographic area. Currently, the four photographic blocks of SGR comprise 2996 km2 or six percent of SGR. Further blocks may be added to the photographic area in the future. The Selous makes a good case study for the future of lion trophy hunting in Tanzania.

Lion Population and Ecology in Selous Game Reserve

Due to difficulties in initially getting permission to work in the hunting areas of Selous, my field research was predominately focused on the photographic area of northern Selous; where intensive searches for lions were conducted between 2006 and 2009 (except during the rainy season of March to May). Over 160 lions were individually recognized, and in August 2012, there were 112 lions in an 800 km2 study area, giving a density of 0.14 lions per km2, or 1 lion per 7 km2.  The population in this area had remained relatively constant, as my density estimates were similar to results using the same method from 1997-1999, but the adult sex ratio had decreased from 1 male: 1.3 female in 1997 to 1 male: 3 females in 2009. Such changes in the sex ratio are often indicative of unsustainable male lion trophy hunting, which tie in with recent studies of lion trophy hunting in Tanzania (discussed later).

In 2009, I was given permission to work in the hunting blocks of SGR and using buffalo calf distress calls conducted call-up surveys to census lions in three hunting sectors in the west, east and south of Selous, and in the northern photographic area. Estimated adult lion densities varied from 0.02-0.10 per km2, allowing an overall population estimate of 4300 (range: 1700 – 6900). This represents Africa’s biggest lion population (for more info, see Brink et al., 2013).

Lion distribution in the 800 km2 study site in northern Selous was best explained by lean or dry season prey biomass.  The mean dry season prey biomass for the study site was 1436 kg per km2, suggesting a lion carrying capacity for the study site of 164 lions (0.21 lions per km2).  However, by another method a carrying capacity of only 104 lions (0.13 lions per km2) was suggested for the same area based on the average number of preferred prey species recorded on prey transects.  In August 2009, as mentioned earlier, at least 112 lions were observed in this 800 km2 study area, so the observed number of lions was between the two possible carrying capacities.  Based on prey transects and field observations of lions on kills, lions in northern Selous showed a preference for buffalo, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest and an avoidance of warthog and impala.  However, no relationship was noted between lion distribution and buffalo sightings.  Environmental and anthropogenic factors that best explained lion distribution in northern SGR were distance to the reserve boundary and villages and soil type of an area. Understanding lion ecology and the factors that impact lion distribution and population can be useful in setting the lion trophy hunting quota in Selous.

Setting the Lion Trophy Hunting Quota in Selous

The sustainable management of hunting in Selous Game Reserve (SGR) is driven by a quota system, whereby the reserve is divided into 43 hunting blocks and each is allocated a quota of animals to hunt.  The lion hunting quota in Tanzania, as mentioned previously, is currently set through educated guesswork.  A transparent means of setting quotas for lions in SGR was devised.  In particular, three different approaches were used to investigate the sustainability of the lion hunting quota (for a detailed discussion of these three approaches, please see my thesis: pg. 55-78).   The most accessible and simplest to implement was an approach based on hunting off-take and quota data. Based on lion off-take data from 1995 to 2008 a reduction to the quota is suggested to one lion per 1000 km2. Therefore a block of 2000 km2 would get a quota of two lions per year, and a 500 km2 block would get a quota of one lion every other year. This approach suggests a lion quota of 46 lions for Selous. The other approaches would suggest a quota of 70 or 88 respectively. All three approaches showed the need for the lion quota to be reduced from the actual figure of 140 lions in SGR.

The reaction from the various hunting companies to suggestions of a reduced quota has by and large been negative; their objections have focused on three points: i) the quota should not be reduced, as it is rarely met; ii) certain areas have higher densities of lions, and therefore these areas should be allowed to continue to harvest at higher levels; iii) the reduction in off-take has been a result of self-regulation.

The hunting companies argue that they need the high quotas to sell the opportunity to hunt to tourists, and that they do not expect to fill the quota.  This is true of many companies, but there are companies that have a quota of four lions, a block of 379 km2, and shoot all four lions on their quota.  The challenge has always been how to regulate the companies that over harvest their blocks. A reduction of the lion quota to one per 1000 km2 would reduce the quota from 499 for the whole of Tanzania (as it was in 2008) to 230, but this would still be higher than the 162 lions hunted in 2008 in Tanzania. What it would mean is that the spread of hunting would be more even (i.e. you would not have areas of over harvesting).

Certain areas have higher densities of lions, and therefore these areas should be allowed to continue to harvest at higher levels; there are blocks harvesting at two or three lions per 1000km2 that have not shown a reduction in off-take over time.  While this may certainly be true, there have been almost no independent field studies from hunting areas in Tanzania.  Conversely, it could be argued that these high levels of off-take have been maintained by increased hunting effort or illegal practices (e.g. hunting at night with spotlight) masking a reduction in the overall population and a sudden decrease in off-take is imminent.

These reductions in off-take have been a result of self-regulation; that is, hunters are showing restraint and only hunting older animals or good trophy animals. While this may be true of several companies, it does not explain why the greatest decrease in lion hunting is seen in areas with the highest hunting pressures (i.e. most lions shot per unit area per year). Nor does it explain the general perception among government officials and professional hunters in SGR that there are fewer lions in 2008 than in the 1990s, nor the fact that under-aged lions are still being shot in Tanzania in 2008.  In the next section, I look at one of the major causes of unsustainably high hunting off-take, namely, short-term block leasing or sub-leasing.

The Impact of Short-Term Leasing on Lion Trophy Hunting

Over the last two decades the lion quota in Selous has remained relatively constant and the numbers of tourists visiting Selous for hunting safaris have increased. However, actual lion trophy hunting off-take in Selous peaked in 1998 (115 lions shot) and over the last decade lion trophy hunting has decreased by some 50% to 53 lions hunted in 2008. However, this decrease has not been uniform across the Selous. The blocks in Selous with the highest lion hunting pressure (i.e. the most lions shot per 1000 km2 per year) were the blocks that experienced the steepest declines in trophy off-take from 1996 to 2008 and tended to be leased by the same company for less than five years (or sub-leased).  This short-termism is driving the over-hunting of lions, leading to declines in the lion population in these hunting blocks.  Furthermore, because of Tanzania’s over-reliance on trophy fees (i.e. fees paid for the dead animal) these high pressure hunting blocks brought in the greatest amount of revenue for the government per km2 of area. There is a need to move away from the over reliance on trophy fees for government income generation.

There is very little information available on many aspects of the Tanzanian hunting industry. In particular, many of the concessions are leased to local companies that do not have the capacity to market their hunting opportunities, thus leading to a system of subleasing mostly to foreign professional hunters without any residence status in Tanzania. This has implications for revenue collection and long-term utilization of the blocks whereby all parties involved benefit most by maximizing returns over the short term, which is achieved through shooting the most lions over a limited period. In Selous, most of these blocks are on the western side of the reserve.

Hunting companies that retain the same hunting blocks over 20 years take a long-term view over husbanding hunting opportunities in their blocks.  This relationship is clearly highlighted by the lion trophy hunting data in my study.  It is therefore strongly recommended that blocks should be leased for a minimum of ten years and not the five years as is current practice.

The Future: Lion Trophy Hunting in Tanzania

Till this point, I have largely been focused on sharing the results of my work in Selous from 2006 to 2009, now I would like to discuss what has happened since and look at future opportunities and challenges. On returning to Tanzania in 2011, my focus was very much on continuing to monitor lions in Selous. In particular, to expand monitoring to the hunting areas of Selous using a new cost effective and reliable method based on spoor transects (for more info on the method see, Funston et al., 2010). However, it has proved impossible to get research clearance for the work in the hunting blocks. This work could have been used to allow for a more informed decision in the USFWS listing of the lion. The former Director of Wildlife wrote in the New York Times (March 17, 2013): “I ask on behalf of my country and all of our wildlife: do not list the African lion as endangered. Instead, help us make the most from the revenues we generate. Help us make trophy hunting more sustainable and more valuable. In short, please work with us to conserve wildlife, rather than against us, which only diminishes our capacity to protect Tanzania’s global treasures.” If these sentiments are genuinely held, partnership with international conservation organizations could greatly help Tanzania’s credibility that lion trophy hunting was currently sustainable by allowing these international organizations to assist in field surveys and monitoring of trophy quality prior to export.  Many of these necessary changes to lion trophy hunting are not rocket science and are far from new, and recent efforts on trophy assessment and lion aging with IGF Foundation (Fondation Internationale pour la Gestion de la Faune) represent a step in the right direction, but to my mind do not go far enough: lion trophy data should have been made more widely available and organizations with differing viewpoints should be involved.

The adoption of the 1995 Policy and Management Plan for Tourist Hunting (MNRT, 1995), which was accepted by the then Director of Wildlife, but has yet to be implemented, would go some way to making trophy hunting sustainable as it would allocate hunting blocks through market-based competition with a long-term lease, thereby reducing the importance of trophy fees.   The 1995 Management Plan focuses on a more equitable distribution of revenue and had six main recommendations:

  • The allocation of hunting blocks through a tender system that allows equitable distribution of blocks, without compromising the existing high standards of many outfitters or prejudicing the long-term economic returns from tourist hunting to Tanzania (open allocation);
  • The adoption of a fee structure that combines a right to use concession fee paid by the outfitter in return for a long-term lease of that block, and a trophy fee per animal shot (improved fee structure);
  • The setting of sustainable hunting quota that promote trophy quality on a scientific basis (sustainable quotas);
  • The adoption of codes of conduct by outfitters and the overseeing of examinations for professional hunters that ensure their competence in the practice of hunting and in providing the necessary services to their hunting clients (codes of conduct and professional examinations);
  • The sharing of revenues and benefits with rural communities from hunting carried out on their land (community benefit); and
  • The reinvestment of part of the funds derived from tourist hunting in the management of game reserves (Game Reserve retention)”.

It is my opinion that transparent, well regulated and managed trophy hunting has an important role to play in lion conservation in Tanzania. For lion trophy hunting to be of benefit to conservation in Tanzania, it has to be sustainable, but more importantly beyond any suspicion of wrong-doing. Regardless of how the USFWS list the lion, those that support lion trophy hunting have to clearly explain how they intend to deal with allegations of unsustainable hunting, corruption, and poor wildlife management practices. Similarly, those that support a ban on lion trophy hunting have to clearly articulate how they intend to fund the conservation of areas currently reliant on trophy hunting, a very substantial area in the Tanzanian context.

Further Information:

Brink, H., Smith, R.J., & Skinner, K. (2013) Methods for lion monitoring: a comparison from Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania. African Journal of Ecology. 51 (2): 366-375

Funston, P.J., Frank, L., Stephens, T., Davidson, Z., Loveridge, A., Macdonald, D.M., S. Durant, S., Packer, C., Mosser, A., & Ferreira, S.M. (2010) Substrate and species constraints on the use of track incidences to estimate African large carnivore abundance. J. Zool., Lond. 281, 56-65

Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism; MNRT (1995) Policy and Management Plan for Tourist Hunting. Government Printer, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Whitman, K., Starflield, M., Quadling, S. & Packer C. (2004) Sustainable trophy hunting of African Lions. Nature 428, 175-178

Author: Henry Brink

Henry Brink was formerly Principal Investigator on Selous Lion Project and a Project Officer on Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Selous Conservation Project. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect the opinions of the above organizations.