Saving The Lion

It’s been a long but memorable day. One of the objectives of your safari–a long-awaited hunting dream–rests on a bed of grass in the back of the vehicle. What you don’t yet know is the day isn’t over. About a mile from camp you suddenly stop, the crew alights, and in a few moments the hunting car is decorated with greenery and streaming toilet paper.

The vehicle makes its way on into camp, sometimes with the horn honking and shots fired into the air, but always accompanied by a chorus of deep, melodious African voices. As you approach, the camp staff joins in song and you’ll be hoisted from the truck and carried around the camp. This is your day!

This Namibian lion, taken on a 2007 “problem lion permit,” is a classic example of the kind of lion we should be taking – Old, past breeding, kicked out of the pride.
This Namibian lion, taken on a “problem lion permit,” is an example of the kind of lion we should be taking – old, past breeding, kicked out of the pride.

Across the continent the songs vary, but the taking of one of the hunting area’s great prizes will be cause for celebration. This is one of the finest traditions of safari, whether that great prize is a giant eland or bongo in Central Africa, a mountain nyala in Ethiopia, or an elephant or great cat across so much of the continent. To some extent, it’s all in good fun–and good business. The accomplishment of a safari’s primary goal means the tips will flow. The more enthusiasm shown, perhaps the wider the river, and maybe the dancing will be enhanced by a couple of cases of beer distributed for the occasion.

This is not to say these celebrations aren’t genuine. It’s a long season in safari camp, entertainment is scarce, and singing and dancing are important parts of African culture. So the celebration is real, but with any good outfit it’s also part of the show.

There is one exception. When a lion is taken, I believe the excitement is totally real. The anti-hunting forces who wish to place the African lion on the endangered species list and to close sport hunting, may have perfectly good and honorable intentions, but they ignore the simple dynamic that, ultimately, is the crux of the matter–rural Africans regard the lion as a deadly enemy.

Buffaloes and elephants raid crops, and every year subsistence farmers are killed defending their fields. But these animals rank more as dangerous nuisances. It’s a bit different with lions. The majority of rural African peoples not only raise cattle–they count their personal wealth, their future, and their retirement fund in cattle.

Lions can’t help but love cattle, people who raise cattle can’t help but hate lions. And there’s just a bit more. In the Marines a favorite saying before a spot of trouble goes something like “They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.” That’s true of elephant and buffalo, and they might kill you most horribly. A lion might kill you with equal horror, and he might also eat you. Imagine, then, the loathing and innate fear that a rural African has for animals that can prey upon his livelihood as well as subject him and his family to the ultimate horror of being eaten alive. Lions aren’t alone in this category. Hyenas and leopards are also viewed with special hatred.

The proliferation of the AK-47 has changed things quite a bit, but historically the rural African has been poorly equipped to deal with the threat of marauding lions. But even absent modern rifles, they still have the world’s deadliest weapon, the human brain. Some tribes, like the Masai, developed group tactics for hunting with spears, sharing the incredible risk and holding the line through peer pressure alone. Others developed effective poisons and techniques for using them, which, in rural Africa today, are the methods of choice for dealing with troublesome lions.

We hunters must change our ways. When I started hunting in Africa a nicely-maned lion like this was considered fair game. Today we know that pride males must not be taken, and beautiful young males like this, no more than four years old, must be left to breed.
We hunters must change our ways. When I started hunting in Africa a lion like this was considered fair game. Today we know that pride males must not be taken, and beautiful young males like this, no more than four years old, must be left to breed.

Those who would eliminate sport hunting of lions ignore the simple fact that Africans loathe the great cats, and absent major incentives to co-exist with them, they will find a way to deal with the problem. I freely concede that the lion has been overhunted in many areas. Some greedy safari companies have abused the resource, and continue to do so.

We sport hunters, partly out of ignorance and partly out of pride, have been too insistent on hunting success, often to the detriment of the resource. Here, however, is where the hunting community and the anti-hunting community diverge on the question of lion hunting. The anti-hunters believe (or at least pretend to believe) that elimination of sport hunting will be good for Africa’s lion population. I believe, and I hope I’m joined by all hunters in this belief, that the uplisting of the African lion to Appendix I, changing its status from “Threatened” to “Endangered,” would be the death knell for the lion across most of his remaining range.

I believe very strongly that we as hunters must clean up our act. The primary management tool must be a sensible and sustainable quota. Operators and hunters alike must observe that quota with a religious fervor. We must strive to take older males, and we must avoid taking males from a pride. We should probably accept that we cannot convince the anti-hunters, but we must strive to make the scientific community, the wildlife managers, and the non-hunting public aware that there are three irreplaceable benefits to carefully-regulated sport-hunting of lions: First and perhaps foremost, hunting places value on this traditional enemy of all rural Africans. Second, as with all hunting, lion hunting serves as a management tool. Third, lion hunting can reduce the inevitable human-lion conflict.

VALUE

In the stark realities of Third World economies it should be obvious that wildlife must pay its way. Unfortunately the majority of our scientists grew up and were educated in the First World, so this logic seems often lost. Trophy hunting is essentially the sacrificing of a small number so the majority can flourish. In today’s Africa, the lion safari is at the top of the pyramid, the most costly, most specialized, and generally most lengthy safari on the African continent. Costs vary from country to country, but a lion safari brings in the most revenue.

At the local level, this can be seen in local employment: Building and maintaining camps and roads; scouting and guiding; anti-poaching patrols. In most African countries today, the local areas benefit directly from concession, license, and trophy fee revenues. Many outfitters have their own programs for local assistance, with client contributions either voluntary or mandatory. Across Africa, safaris build schools and clinics; buy medicine, seed and fertilizer; and of course distribute the game meat that’s a byproduct of any safari.

Absent value, it’s a simple thing to poison carcasses and waterholes, eradicating a lot more than just the lion, but protecting cattle and family. This has happened in many non-hunting countries, where lions and other wildlife have no value. It would be foolish to suggest that this isn’t still happening even in hunting countries, because the hatred for lions runs very deep. But without the value placed on wildlife by sport-hunting – including lions – there is truly little hope.

MANAGEMENT

Very little true wilderness remains in Africa (or anywhere else) – and what wilderness remains is not unlimited. Gone are the days when prides of lions can exhaust their prey, then move on indefinitely to new hunting grounds. Lion country is finite, and whether we like it or not, we humans have assumed the responsibility to manage this world that we have altered.

Absent regulated hunting that places value on the great cats, the most common local management tool will probably be total destruction. Without sport hunting, the future of the lion is not very bright.
Absent regulated hunting that places value on the great cats, the most common local management tool will probably be total destruction. Without sport hunting, the future of the lion is not very bright.

In much of wild Africa, it’s a simple fact that we don’t have enough lions, and I’ve already admitted that overhunting has been a part of that. But Africa is a big place, and the entire continent cannot be painted with one brush. Tanzania has taken a very bold and aggressive step with their “six year rule.” In Tanzania a legal lion must be a male of six years or older. Tanzania has Africa’s largest lion population, but also has many areas that have been depleted by overshooting of quota. So it’s a good move to mandate the taking of only old lions, but it is even more essential to set sound quotas and adhere to them.

Again, the Tanzanian situation isn’t universal. In Botswana the anti-hunters got their way. Although there are differences of opinion on this, my belief is this was political rather than essential. Botswana has lots of lions. With no lion hunting and lots of lions, what Botswana no longer has are lots of sable, roan and other key antelope species. Total protection may invoke laws of unintended consequences.

In the Lower Zambezi, where I hunt and film for several weeks each year, there used to be a more-or-less equal quota for lions and lionesses. In any animal population judged to be at or near carrying capacity it is probably sound to hunt the sexes equally, but with the continent-wide hue and cry over the plight of the lion, the lioness quota was abolished. By 2005 and 2006, we started seeing a noticeable increase in the lion population. At the same, time buffalo calf survival seemed to be plummeting. By 2007 and 2008, one might still see a thousand buffalo in a good week, but many herds would have no calves at all. Sightings of sable, eland, kudu and zebra were also dropping. After much begging on the part of the safari operators, a lioness quota was reinstituted. There are still plenty of lions. It remains to be seen whether buffalo calf survival will now increase.

REDUCTION OF CONFLICT

Lions can essentially be maintained as sacred cows, not huntable, within national parks and game preserves. But what happens when, in the natural course of things, lions expand beyond their parks, reserves and designated safari areas with no human habitation? They will quickly turn to eating the real sacred cows. They are – after all – lions, and they can’t be blamed. If they have both the value and protection offered by sport hunting, a bit of this will be tolerated, but absent that value, the rural Africans will deal with the problem. They will be neither gentle nor selective, and they can’t be blamed, either.

The lioness considered the primary culprit in the Masau maneating incident was sick and emaciated, which is often the case when a lion turns maneater, but there was nothing wrong with her teeth. Rural Africans have historic and traditional reasons to hate and fear lions.
The lioness considered the primary culprit in the Masau maneating incident was sick and emaciated, which is often the case when a lion turns maneater, but there was nothing wrong with her teeth. Rural Africans have historic and traditional reasons to hate and fear lions.

Sometimes, even in our 21st Century, it isn’t the cattle that are at risk. In early 2010, in Dande Communal Area in the lower Zambezi, two people were killed and eaten by lions. The hunting season was far away, but Zimbabwe PH Mark Valaro happened to be at the Masau safari camp, so a deputation of villagers set out to ask him for help. They were almost in sight of the camp when the lions struck again, dragging down the last man in line. Hearing the screaming, Valaro and his party raced from the camp. The commotion drove the lions away, and the man was still alive when they reached him. Bitten through the neck, he died in minutes.

For a fearful 48 hours the hunters pursued a small pride. Two lionesses were killed, and another was shot and probably killed, the spoor lost in a rainstorm. One of the lionesses was an emaciated female, almost certainly the ringleader. The villagers of Dande North had a clear problem. Under the authority of the local game guards, they came to the nearest hunter for help. There were no more murders, and there was no reprisal. Far beyond living memory this is the way such conflicts have been resolved. What will happen when lion hunting is finished, and the lion hunters are gone?– Craig Boddington

Click here to support the African Lion Defense Fund

lion-head

One thought on “Saving The Lion”

Leave a Reply