Vail Daily column: Are lions fading into the sunset? | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Are lions fading into the sunset?

Butch Mazzuca

Fifty years ago, there were approximately 450,000 lions in Africa. Today, roughly 22,000 remain with perhaps as few as 5,000 big males still in the wild.

Meanwhile, advocates of the African trophy hunting industry would like us to believe that lion hunting actually benefits dwindling lion populations. They contend that when local communities share in hunting revenues it encourages local villagers to engage in conservation efforts to save the species.

'It's Africa'

In a statement for the Safari Club International Foundation, Larry Rudolph and Joe Hosmer wrote, "Hunters and hunting actually benefit Africa's lions — as well as its humans. Revenues from hunting generate $200 million annually in remote rural areas of Africa. This revenue gives wildlife value and humans protect the revenue by protecting the wildlife."

There are many factors influencing the long-term sustainability of wild lion populations. Hunting, human-lion conflict, habitat loss, prey depletion and agricultural expansion are the primary culprits. So why not eliminate at least one threat and put an end to lion hunting forever?

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But research finds that less than 3 percent of the revenues earmarked for local communities actually find its way to the local villagers. That said, and as with most everything else on the continent, all is not as it seems.

If you're fortunate enough to spend time in Africa, then you're sure to hear the expression, "It's Africa," a phrase Africans use as they throw up their hands resigned to the fact that there is no choice but to grin and bear it as they experience needless delays, interminable red tape, widespread corruption or almost any situation that defies logic. And African trophy hunting isn't immune to this phenomenon.

Inherent fallacy

Lion hunting proponents believe that the banning of lion hunting will actually reduce lion populations because according to their logic when lions are hunted and the local community benefits financially from that hunting, the local community will put a higher value on lions and therefore will work to conserve these animals because they now have a vested interest in the sustainability of lion populations.

However, the inherent fallacy in that argument is that the local communities don't always benefit to the extent needed to persuade villagers to engage in conservation efforts. There are simply too many corrupt agencies and bureaus that take "their cut" of that 3 percent before it filters down to local communities.

At the same time, in areas where lion hunting has been banned, local tribesmen frequently use pesticides to poison lions that take down cattle. And in Africa, cattle are like gold to the local populations.

Nothing goes to waste in the African bush. And when lions are poisoned, hyenas, jackals and vultures pick at the flesh, ingest the poison and soon share the fate of the big cats. Soon, smaller creatures feed on the carrion of these scavengers, sharing their fate as the cycle continues until all that is left are a few bleached out bones.

Experts from all sides of hunting and the conservation debate agree that local communities are the key stakeholders in any conservation initiatives, yet these "key stakeholders" receive minimal benefit from trophy hunting.

It's been suggested that perhaps greater revenue sharing with local communities would help solve the problem thus making lions more valuable, which in theory would cause local communities to engage in greater conservation efforts. But these communities aren't receiving the promised benefits now, and twice as much of nothing is still nothing!

Other factors

The appalling devastation of the lion population isn't just a result of trophy hunting, but with so few of these magnificent animals still in the wild, why accelerate the decline by purposely destroying them?

Conversely, non-hunting safaris designed for photographers or tourists seeking adventure are a much more sustainable form of tourism. And these safari companies contribute far more to local African communities than hunting does.

Having traveled to South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania, my wife and I have seen first-hand how safari companies in each of these countries have developed and engaged in mutually supportive conservation efforts with local villagers.

As a sidebar, one aspect of the issue that doesn't make a lot of sense is the fact that lion hunting isn't even the major revenue generator for the industry. Rather buffalo and plains game hunting are the real drivers, so why kill these endangered beasts for "sport," and I use that term loosely.

Reverse Darwinism

Trophy hunters target the most regal lions, i.e., the largest males with full dark manes. But what they're really doing is engaging in reverse Darwinism, i.e., an unnatural selection process.

As a consequence in areas where hunting is allowed, lions are smaller and have shorter or non-existent manes. But the real tragedy of lion hunting is that when lions are killed for their trophy value, their very complex social structures are altered, which in turn can deleteriously affect lion prides for a generation or more.

There are many factors influencing the long-term sustainability of wild lion populations. Hunting, human-lion conflict, habitat loss, prey depletion and agricultural expansion are the primary culprits. So why not eliminate at least one threat and put an end to lion hunting forever?

Quote of the day: "The lion sleeps tonight (Wimoweh)," — The Tokens, 1961.

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@comcast.net.