The number of African lions being shot by trophy hunters must be radically cut if the species is to survive, a leading British conservation scientist said yesterday.
New research has shown that removing just a single lion from a population could produce a cascade of effects which led to falling numbers, said Professor David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University. Quotas for hunting - usually by rich Americans, in the style of Ernest Hemingway - had been set on a well-meaning but non-scientific basis, he said, and they needed to be cut back as quickly as possible.
Concern is rapidly growing that lion populations across Africa are now in free fall as a result of spreading human development, habitat destruction and hunting, both official and unofficial.
Latest estimates suggest there may now be no more than 23,000 lions left across the continent, from a population that might have been 10 times greater only 20 years ago.
Although lions inhabit more than 30 African countries, they are thought to be fully protected in no more than 12, and in at least another 12 states, trophy hunting takes place with the full approval of the government.
This has been accepted and, indeed, supported by many Western conservationists on the grounds that Africa's desperately poor people need to attach value to local wildlife if they are to preserve it.
The theory is that people will refrain from killing lions, even if they are dangerous and a threat to livestock, if every so often a rich Texan arrives and pays the local community thousands of dollars - in hunting fees, hire of equipment and cars, guides and hotel bills - to kill one himself; to take the maned head back for his sitting-room wall.
The problem is that the numbers being taken are simply much too high to be sustainable, said Professor Macdonald, who is one of the world's leading experts on mammals, and on carnivores in particular.
This has been revealed by a five-year WildCRU research programme on the trophy hunting of lions around the borders of the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, details of which he disclosed last night in a lecture at the Zoological Society of London.
The research has shown that lion "sociology" is very complicated and that the population dynamics of lion groups can be damagingly destabilised once individuals start to be removed. Lion prides of 12 or more females live in association with "coalitions" of perhaps three of four males, who act as protectors. But if one or more of the males suddenly disappears - shot by trophy hunters - a rival coalition can move in and take over. And the new males will then kill all the cubs in the pride (as this automatically makes the females ready to mate again), sending numbers down still further.
Professor Macdonald said: "With some animals which live in complicated societies, when you kill one of them you have disrupted the social fabric of which it was a part, and the survivors behave differently."
The research at Hwange, led by Dr Andy Loveridge, had shown that this was exactly what took place. The quota for hunting around the border of the park used to be 60 animals a year, at about $4,000 (£2,400) each, to a hunter but now there were thought to be no more than 50 lions inside the park itself, and any animal wandering outside was likely to be shot.
After talks with WildCRU researchers, the quota had been cut to 34, but Professor Macdonald believed that should be radically scaled down, to no more than four. Local communities could be compensated by the hunting fee being commensurately raised, perhaps to $80,000 per animal.
Professor Macdonald said there was an ethical argument that hunting should be banned completely. "That would be fine with me," he said, but added it was not necessarily the best way to conserve lions.
"We need a formula that gives as much money as possible to communities to enable local people to value their lions. A lot of it can be done with photo-tourism but it is possible that strictly regulated hunting may be needed as well."
But if hunting was not strictly regulated according to new scientific knowledge it posed a threat to the survival of the lion as a species, he said.
In an associated WildCRU project, of which Professor Macdonald gave details last night, researchers led by Graham Hemson have found that herdsmen in Botswana are taking a steady toll of lions that prey on their stock, even in protected areas. They suggest more wild prey species, such as the kudu antelope, should be introduced into lion areas to lessen the chances of them predating on herdsmen's cattle.
SAFARIS THAT END IN DEATH
Arranging to shoot a lion can be done over the internet, with a few clicks and a substantial amount of dollars. The US consultancy Wildlife Safaris, for example, offers trips in Zimbabwe where you can shoot most of the animals for which Africa is famed, from lions and elephants down. Its website suggests the Matetsi area in north-west Zimbabwe, near Victoria Falls, "a vast, unspoiled section of Africa which is one of the most unique big game areas, particularly known for its big lions and sable, not to mention elephant, buffalo, and plains game.
The camp sits on a hill offering a scenic view where you commonly see game and enjoy the usual cacophony of African sounds. Thatched rondavels with bathrooms, dining/lounge area, fireplace and bar make this a very comfortable place to hang your hat."
A lion hunt, aiming to shoot "lion, buffalo and plainsgame", lasting 18 days, costs $1,100 (£660) a day. The "trophy fee" for a lion is an additional $4,500 for a male, or $2,200 for a female. This is the second highest fee, exceeded only by that of $10,000 for a bull elephant.Reuse content