Eco-Logic |

When Lions Fall Easy Prey

There are more lions in captivity today than in the wild.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Demonstrations were held last week in several countries, including Israel, against the exploitation of lions in Africa. The focus of the campaign, Global March for Lions, is on “canned hunts,” where wealthy Europeans and Americans pay for the dubious privilege of shooting the king of the animals from up close, within an enclosed compound.

The situation of lions and other predators has worsened in recent years, both in the wild and in captivity. In Africa and in Southeast Asia, lions, tigers and leopards are exploited for fun and for show. And these big cats are gradually disappearing from nature: In South Africa, for instance, there are currently more lions in captivity than there are in the wild.

Organizers note that letting hunters pay to shoot lions in captivity also endangers these populations in the wild; it creates a market for lion bones, which are used to make traditional medicines in Southeast Asia. The high demand for these bones could lead some African states to begin hunting lions systematically, as has already happened with rhinoceroses and elephants. Another fear is that rural areas will encourage hunting enthusiasts from wealthy countries to pay to hunt lions in the wild, thereby getting a more exciting experience.

Two months ago, a group of scientists published an article in the journal Science about the state of large predators in nature. They noted that the African lion is currently found in only 17 percent of the territory it inhabited in the past, while the territory inhabited by leopards in Africa has shrunk to a third of what it was in the past. In Asia, only a few thousand tigers remain; leopards have disappeared almost completely from the western part of that continent; and lions remain only in one single reserve, in India.

In West Africa, lions are on the verge of extinction due to widespread hunting, which is meant primarily to protect cattle herds. Similar problems exist in other regions, and they are only getting worse as natural expanses keep shrinking due to the expansion of human settlement and agricultural cultivation. The lion is the only social species in the cat family, and a pride of lions needs about 1,000 square kilometers of space in order to have enough sources of food.

The decline in the number of lions isn’t uniform throughout Africa. In some large nature reserves, the lion population has been successfully maintained. Nevertheless, the conflict with existing human settlements in these reserves is expected to worsen in the future.

Scientists who study predators are often involved in efforts to protect them, and in recent years, they have been engaged in finding solutions to protect these animals from extinction. The dominant school of thought on how to manage nature reserves holds that the reserves shouldn’t be fenced in, but various steps should be taken to reduce friction between humans and wild animals – for example, paying farmers compensation for damage by predators. But some scientists are skeptical about the effectiveness of this system.

About six months ago, the journal Ecology Letters published an article by dozens of researchers from around the world who study lions and other wild animals. They compared Africa’s unfenced reserves to other reserves that are enclosed, a study that encompassed 42 sites in 11 countries. They concluded that fenced reserves had a better chance of preserving populations large enough to be stable. The researchers predicted that about half the lion population in unfenced reserves would reach the verge of extinction in 20 to 40 years. Therefore, they suggested enclosing some of the African reserves, especially those that contain human settlements.

The authors of the study that was published in Science took a different tack. They proposed a global initiative to preserve these predators by expanding a European program under which countries cooperate to preserve predators over large swathes of territory with the aid of local communities. Large predators are not important only because they are rare and impressive, the scientists noted: Lions, leopards and other predators also play a key role in the ecosystem.

In a response to this article, also published in Science, two other researchers noted the political complexity of any effort to preserve predators. As an example, they cited the case of the wolf – a predator that has managed to recover in Europe and repopulate large areas where it was formerly extinct.

In the mid-1990s, complaints were raised in France that wolves that had returned to rural areas were preying on sheep and causing severe economic harm to farmers. But this turned out not to be true. What actually happened was that in 1985, the French intelligence service sunk a Greenpeace ship that was trying to halt France’s nuclear tests. During this operation, one Greenpeace activist – a New Zealand national – was killed. To calm the severe diplomatic crisis that erupted, the French government agreed to allow the import of sheep from New Zealand, and these imports are what caused the economic harm to French sheep farmers. But local politicians, in an effort to divert public attention from the price France had paid for sinking the Greenpeace ship, preferred to blame the wolves.

Meanwhile, however, wolves have continued their comeback, and Europe, the first continent from which these predators disappeared, is today the continent where they are doing best. A reduction in agricultural activity in Europe has allowed natural vegetation to return in many areas, and with it, predators such as wolves and bears. Progressive legislation to protect wild animals has also helped them to survive in the face of would-be hunters.

A pair of African lions in a Gaza Strip zoo last November. Caring for them in captivity and in the wild. Credit: AP

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