On trophy hunting and big cats

It is a rare occurence indeed to watch the world, those who have access to the internet, actively pour out their opinion and open discussions, as has been the case with the shooting of Cecil the lion.

If the #Cecilthelion matter had occurred ten years ago, the story would not have reached as many people and there would have been little reaction. As with all debates, both sides have arguments that are worth hearing. With this essay, I attempt to put into words the opinion of those who are against trophy hunting for reasons beyond simple sentimental outrage.

A large male lion looks through the photographer into a herd of buffaloes, Kwando, Botswana

The legality of this particular case will hopefully be dealt with by the courts, but this highly mediatised example offers an occasion to reflect on trophy hunting in more general terms as a concept and as a reality. The legitimacy of trophy hunting for conservation was already under scrutiny when Dallas Safari Club auctioned the right to kill an endangered Namibian black rhino for $350,000 in 2013.

Over the last few months, wildlife biologists and conservationists have found themselves declaring for or against the trophy hunting industry. Many conservationists, such as myself, are against the trophy hunting of endangered and vulnerable species, not because of animal welfare reasons but because of the failure of this activity to fulfil its role in conservation. In the majority of the arguments put forth by conservationists in its favour, the term "trophy hunting" has often been found alongside the words "potential tool" and "if well done". Practice shows that in most countries, it is just an activity to fuel corruption, encourage the unfair redistribution of the wealth generated, inadequate involvement of communities and the loss of healthy individuals that are still key for reproduction.

Trophy hunting as a conservation tool

As ecologists and wildlife biologists studying in university, we are often brainwashed about the role of trophy hunting as a conservation tool. It is presented to us as a magic bullet for conservation efforts in African countries where hunting is allowed.

It is true that in some areas, conservationists have to work with hunters and some places are mainly populated by hunting farms stocked with wildlife (mostly ungulates and not endangered species). These tend to be hunting operations which will not have any effect on the stability of the population and may have a positive effect as the land may not be suitable for photo tourism (unfertile, low nutrient areas with little access to water therefore low wildlife density). Some hunting clubs donate large amounts of money to NGOs such as Panthera and WildCru for species conservation. This may be an additional reason for NGOs and conservationists to be positive towards trophy hunting. Initiatives that started off with good intentions, are often diluted with time by corruption and loss of interest. "Campfire" in Zimbabwe is a prime example- what started off with good intentions and was successful in its goals for a few years, collapsed in its purpose and today is heavily subsidised by the government.

Some conservationists believe that the halting of trophy hunting will lead to the decimation of wildlife. The trophy hunting of lions in Botswana was banned more than ten years ago and last year the government announced a complete ban of all hunting. Vast tracts of land around the Moremi Game Reserve which were formerly hunting concessions are now only open to photo tourism.

Understandably, areas far from the watershed basin are less fertile and can therefore support only low densities of animals making these areas less favourable for photo tourism. The Selinda Reserve, which is in the fertile part of this landscape, was transformed from part-hunting parcels to full photographic tourism in 2006. The ban led to a dramatic increase in wildlife numbers leading to a profitable increase in revenue generated and ecotourism results in the employment of 40% of the working population in this part of the country. Although a lot of the hunting was carried out in zones far away from the watershed basin in areas with low population densities as they are not fertile enough to support high numbers of animals, shutting down hunting has proven to have a positive effect. These areas remain unproductive but are safe for wildlife to move freely through multiple corridors across lands they were previously avoiding due to hunting. Radio-collar data collected over ten years showed that elephants in Botswana and other southern African countries, systematically avoided hunting concessions or travelled through them speedily at night.

It is very difficult to determine exactly what percentage of the revenue generated by ecotourism and trophy hunting separately goes into conservation. However, with the high degree of corruption in countries like Zimbabwe (corruption index on Transparency International= 156/175), I highly doubt that dedicated and well-managed conservation is a priority. I am also rather sceptical about claims that the reinstatement of trophy hunting in countries like Zambia was done for the sake of conservation.

Impact of trophy hunting on big cats

There is a question about the legitimacy of this activity with regard to big cats- what is the impact of trophy hunting on a species whose population is already experiencing a serious decline? A century ago, 200,000 lions roamed across their range; today only about 20,000 lions are left in the wild and they are found in 8% of their original home range. They have gone extinct in 26 of their original range countries in Africa and today are present in only eight countries of which trophy hunting is only banned in one, Botswana (http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/big-cats-initiative/lion-decline-map/). Although we still do not know what the major driver of this decline is, humans are thought to be the primary cause.

While hunters in North America and Europe may claim that their activity is essential to control the population of some species of deer, the same argument does not at all apply to felines or other vulnerable species.

A trophy by definition is something of prime quality. Contrary to natural selection, the prime individuals are the main targets for trophy hunters. Male lions are chosen for their strong sexual dimorphism. When males are defeated and made to give up their territories, they lose their manes to reduce aggression from resident males and are no longer interesting trophies. So the individuals that tend to be selected by hunters are in their prime, have prides, maintain territories and have cubs which are vulnerable to infanticide when new males take over the pride. Research showed that male lions reach maturity at 4-7 years (taking into account lions from East and southern Africa) and 30% of lions hunted are around the age of 6. These animals are still sub-adults for the most part and have little chance of reproducing at least once. The removal of reproducing females, although less popular with trophy hunters, can lead to a population decline. A skewed sex ratio due to the systematic removal of males could potentially have a negative effect on the population but the effect is not fully understood.

Linyanti, Botswana: a pride of lions rests in a forest.

The trophy hunting of leopards is another issue to be looked at. There are few leopard density estimates and information about population trends, but leopard hunting quotas have remained consistent over the last decade. The impact of this industry on this species is yet to be ascertained. Hunters in countries like Zambia are known to target sub-adults and females due to the lack of experience of the hunter and the rarity of large, acceptable males which are no longer in their prime. Overshooting quotas and taking individuals that are key to maintaining future populations can have devastating effects on local populations. Leopards are a species that is tolerant to a high loss of individuals but when the numbers drop to a certain point, the population cannot recover. We still do not know what this critical point is and this needs more research. This has been the case for leopards in the Caucasus Region (for different reasons, primarily poaching). Without understanding the basic ecology of the species, it is unreasonable to allow the elimination of individuals that are not in direct conflict with humans.

A loss of leopard and lion populations can affect the balance with ungulates and other species within the same food chain. For example, in some areas of Zimbabwe, leopard play an important role in controlling baboon populations. With indiscriminate and unregulated hunting and elimination of leopards, the baboon populations explode. Once there are several troops in an area with 100 or more individuals, it is difficult for leopards to recover as their hunting success reduces drastically with a significant increase in baboon sentinels.

Elitist nature of trophy hunting and neo-colonialism

The rapid gain of large sums of money which, in theory should be used for conservation, is an attractive source of income for countries with economies in difficulty. In 2005, I travelled to Burkina Faso with my university class, a group of students studying natural resource management. During this field trip, we had the opportunity to spend time in a hunting lodge which, by definition, was luxurious. The set-up with its predominantly white clientele served by local people, fresh crisp salads and vegetables, bushmeat and the skins of two lion cubs lining the walls of the dining area was a stark contrast to the huts constituting the local villages around. There was a marked neo-colonialist spirit about it. We were forbidden to photograph the cub skins.

The biased relation between the wealthy hunter and the whole team supporting him towards her or his kill, has been amply demonstrated by the case of Cecil where some of the team members are arrested while the wealthy hunter is allowed to fly out of the scene and go in hiding. We are lucky that the fast growing number of Asian millionaires are not (yet) fascinated by the thrill of shooting African wildlife. Why encourage the pilferage of vulnerable natural resources of a country by wealthy individuals of another. How would we (Europeans, Americans) react if Chinese and Indian millionaires were to shoot “our” ibexes, chamois, cougars, bears? How open would French, Swiss or Americans be to having rich Zimbabweans come over to shoot local wildlife in the name of conservation? In France and Switzerland, this would not even be possible with the current legislation.

Today, money is the only criteria to obtain the right to kill. Most "normal" tourists cannot afford the kind of luxurious tours that are offered to trophy hunters. But shouldn't the living heritage that is African and global wildlife be accessible to as many people as feasible? Photo safaris are much more affordable, are an option for many more individuals, are of educational value for all sections of society and multiple nationalities and allow for a better distribution of the income generated.

Time for change?

The auctioning of prime individuals to be destroyed for saving a species is comparable to auctioning the Mona Lisa portrait to be destroyed to save art.

Perhaps it is also time for conservationists to realise that with the prevalence of corruption, trophy hunting is not a viable conservation tool in many countries at the moment. A failure of the strict monitoring of age, sex and a lack of penalties for disrespecting these represent a serious threat to the species, especially in the case of large felines. There are many scientific publications giving ideas on how to make trophy hunting sustainable. However, there is little link between what is being published and what is happing in real life on the ground.

In the wake of the Cecil case, there was a tremendous emotional outburst from people all over the world. While it is easy to click on something and write two lines disapproving of certain behaviour, Facebook "likes" will not save any species. But it takes a shift in public opinion to have politicians and legislators acknowledge the problem. It is public opinion which forced politicians to make legislators change some of the more dramatic cases in the past such as eliminating CFCs in our refrigerators and the banning of coats made from the fur of endangered species.

In the case of a species where there are only a few thousand left in the wild, there comes a point where every single individual counts. For example, it doesn't cross anyone's mind to hunt the Amur leopard or Iberian lynx (except for poachers of course). No one goes to hunt Asiatic cheetahs in Iran or to hunt Indian lions in Gir National Park. With less than 30,000 lions left in the wild, the number of prime males must be around 5,000 animals. Is this not a state where every individual counts?

In 2007, Peter Lindsey, a lion conservationist from Zimbabwe published an article which stated that lions can generate up to 17% of hunting income and attract wealthy hunters; however, he also stated that trophy hunting lowered the lion population and affected the behaviour of lions. He also showed that Tanzania held 30-50% of the African lion population and that trophy hunting appeared to be the primary cause of declining lion populations outside protected areas. If the rationale for trophy hunting is indeed to contribute financially and responsibly to conservation, perhaps models such as the "gorilla watching" tourism would be more appropriate. Large amounts of money are injected into the system and when the tourists leave, all individuals are left intact.

Lion and leopard trophy hunting will ultimately stop. The question is, will it stop while there are still lions and leopards left or once they are all dead?

A magnificent male lion surveys his territory from atop a termite mound, Kwando, Botswana