The lucrative trade of the African lion faces it toughest challenge yet as a United States government department begins a year-long process to determine whether this sub-species is endangered.
“We will determine whether a petitioned action is warranted after we have completed a thorough status review of the species,” says the Branch of Foreign Species, Endangered Species Program, US Fish and Wildlife Service in its preliminary findings about a petition submitted to it by of wildlife and animal welfare organisations lobbying to add the African lion as an endangered species under US law.
Sport hunting in Africa is considered the main revenue earner for the wilderness outside national parks and reserves and the US is the largest market for big game safaris in Africa. Two-thirds of the lions hunted for sport were taken to America over the last 10 years.
A favourable ruling would mean that American hunters – who pay up to US$125 000 to shoot a male lion – would no longer be able to do sport hunting in African countries like Botswana. According to the The Guardian in the United Kingdom, between 1999 and 2008, 64 percent of the 5663 lions that were killed in the African wild for sport ended up being shipped to America; the numbers had risen sharply in those 10 years, with more than twice as many lions taken as trophies by US hunters in 2008 than in 1999; Americans are also the world’s biggest buyers of lion carcasses and body parts, including claws, skulls, bones and penises and in the same period, the US imported 63 percent of the 2715 lion specimens put up for sale.
The group petitioning the US government cite Botswana among the two other Southern African countries (South Africa and Zimbabwe) that which are the primary exporting countries in lion parts for commercial purposes. Between 1998 and 2008, Zimbabwe sold 914 specimens, South Africa 867 and Botswana 816, all three accounting for 83.7 percent of all specimens in commercial trade. The specimens were traded internationally through permits.
Other notable markets are Asia where lion bones are used in traditional Chinese medicine in part as a replacement for tiger parts, which have been more strictly regulated within the recent past. Africans themselves use body parts (fat, skin, organs, and hair) to treat a variety of ailments as happens in Nigeria where lion fat is the most highly valued. According to the petition, some African countries such as Guinea-Bissau and parts of Guinea, lions are hunted down for their skins for use in traditional ceremonies.
In the past, some African countries (like Botswana in 2001-2004) imposed a moratorium on hunting lions and banned the hunting of female lions from the hunting quota (Zimbabwe starting 2005) but lions populations continue to decline. One of the studies that the petitioners cite, one says that Africa’s lion population has declined from 100,000 to roughly 32,000 over 50 years. In 2008, the African lion existed in 30 countries but two years later, three countries fell off the list. Countries like Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana no longer have lion populations.
By all accounts, one-half of the total African lion population is in Tanzania, with the two largest populations found in the Serengeti and Selous ecosystems. Smaller populations remain in Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Namibia. The population estimate for Southern Africa is 10,000 lions, with the majority being in Botswana and South Africa.
At a time that a sizeable group of citizens have petitioned the government to free up more land for use, a study by Wildlife Conservation Society indicates that the depletion in lion population is principally driven by the conversion of their habitat to agriculture and grazing as well as human settlement. Between 1970 and 2000, sub-Saharan Africa experienced a 25 percent increase in the amount of land allocated to agriculture. The African lion’s way of life and habitat needs are generally incompatible with human activities and naturally, higher human population density has resulted in a negative correlation between lion density and human density.
The near side-by-side living arrangement often leads to retaliatory killings when lions kill livestock.
WCS found that between 1997 and 2001, approximately 3 percent (representing 93) of the lion population was killed on farm land adjacent to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana. Likewise, three-fourths of the lions in Nairobi Park were speared by local tribesmen within the period of a year.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group, the growth and expansion of the human population may be exposing African lions to new diseases that African lions may have little or no immunity to. Instances have been noted where some lion populations were affected by canine distemper virus, which is normally associated with domesticated dogs.
The petitioners indicate that during one study conducted in Kruger National Park in South Africa, more than 80 percent of lions were found to be infected by bovine tuberculosis, a disease believed to have been caused by the importation of cattle from Europe. The significance of this is that in many areas, buffalo are the primary prey of lions. Lions infected with this disease experienced respiratory problems, emaciation, lameness, and blindness.
Trophy hunters are also being fingered for being directly responsible for the behaviour of infanticide by adult male lions.
“When male lions take over a pride, they often kill the lion cubs. The petition asserts that this is significant because trophy hunters preferentially seek adult male lions, which has cascading effects on a pride. When an adult male lion associated with a pride is killed by a trophy hunter, surviving males who form the pride’s coalition may become vulnerable to takeover by other male coalitions, and this often results in injury or death to the defeated males within the pride. Replacement males that take over a pride will also usually kill all cubs that are less than nine months of age in the pride. Because this behavior is common, the removal of the dominant males in prides through trophy hunting has the effect of not only removing one or two older males, but rather several individuals including the younger cubs from the pride,” reads the preliminary findings of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
What adds to the potential incidences in human-lion conflict is that, according to the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, human population is expected to increase significantly in the next 40 years, particularly in the range of the lion.
On account of the African lion being increasingly restricted to small and disconnected populations, the threat of “incest” will increase. The petitioners’ calculations are that large lion populations with 50 to 100 prides are necessary to avoid the negative consequences of inbreeding and state that population connectivity is essential in order to allow males to travel to other areas in order to preserve genetic variation. They suggest that the lions in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, may be inbred, and subsequently their vulnerability to disease may be increased. The lion population of West Africa is geographically isolated from the lion populations in Central Africa, and there is little to no exchange of breeding lions.