Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Lions On the Brink

Cecil, credit: Oxford U.
The killing of Cecil the Lion King near Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park brought international attention to a long standing crisis: Africa's most prominent big cat is running out of living space.  Experts estimate that only 20,000 African lions remain in the wild and their decline has not been halted.  The outrage over the merciless killing of an iconic male who was collared for research purposes on the edge of a protected zone focused debate on how to preserve lions from extinction.  A scientist was recently publicly derided for his suggestion that continued trophy hunting could be the lions unexpected salvation.  NOT.  It is a profit motivated commercial masquerading as a conservation policy.  What is needed is more law enforcement against poaching and an expansion of protected areas for lions and other iconic species to naturally multiply unmolested.  Repeated research has shown that if a species is given a chance to survive in the wild, it will respond by increasing its population given enough food and water supplies.  The buffalo, the tiger, the whale, the eagle and the wolf are all examples of iconic species that have made a resurgence after legal protection was granted them.

Tanzania male, credit: US Person
The situation around Hwange is a good example of human encroachment on areas protected for wildlife.  Hwange is the only remaining protected area for lions in Zimbabwe, explains The Standard, but it is bounded by private farms such as the Antoinette owned by Honest Ndlovu, a beneficiary of Robert Mugabe's controversial policy of land acquisition in the Lower Dete Valley.  Cecil died on this farm, adjacent to the park boundary.  Residents say about fifty lions a year meet the same fate as Cecil did.  Another controversial hunt occurred on Railway Farm 31, because it had no lion quota for the entire 2015 season.  Once again a rich American bow-hunting doctor, this time a gynecologist, was escorted to his prey by a professional hunter and former warden, Headman Sibanda.  Sibanda lost his license over the episode, but he has filed an appeal in Bulawayo High Court where it is still pending. Sibanda spends much of his time these days hanging around the Bulawayo hotel hustling for business.  Theo Bronkhorst, who led dentist Walter Palmer to Cecil was recently acquitted of any wrongdoing during his hunt.  They hung Cecil's collar in a nearby tree after dispatching the suffering lion with a gunshot.  Some sport. 

Etosha couple, credit: US Person
A hunting ban imposed after these two infamous episodes lasted two weeks.  It collapsed under political pressure from newly created farmers with connections to the Mugabe regime.  But it did create the public impression that the Zimbabwe government was doing something about rampant poaching.  NOT.  Business is not booming because of the lack of suitable mature lions for killing.  Leopards have also disappeared from the valley.  Hunters resort to baiting lions to lure them outside the Park's boundaries, to satisfy the blood thirst of their rich, foreign clients.  Baiting is effective since lions move in prides so entire family can be lured to a sure death in a single operation.  Lions who lack prey and are starving resort to livestock raiding.  This is also a sure means to meet death prematurely since lions suspected of cattle raids are summarily shot.

Marsh Pride members, credit: US Person
Despite Cecil's apparently meaningless persecution at the hands of unscrupulous profit seekers, his passing has spurred renewed efforts to protect remaining wild lions.  Oxford University's Conservation Research Unit, which is monitoring Cecil's pride, convened a summit in September and produced a five point declaration for African lion conservation that calls for restoration of range land that was given over to settlers by Mugabe.  Combined lion range has shrunk to just over 1 million square kilometers over the last century.  Conservation can be done in a way the restores local people's pride in their natural heritage by ensuring social and economic value in protected lands.  Hopefully such programs will ensure the king of beasts still lives on planet Earth.