More than just Ce­cil; big trou­ble for king of jun­gle


The cir­cle of life is clos­ing in on the king of the jun­gle.

When Min­nesota den­tist Wal­ter Palmer killed Ce­cil the lion, the In­ter­net ex­ploded with out­rage. But sci­en­tists who have stud­ied lions say the big cats have been in big trou­ble for years.

They’ve watched the African lion pop­u­la­tion shrink by more than half since 1980 and dwin­dle even faster in East Africa, where lions used to be most abun­dant. They’ve seen tro­phy hunt­ing like Palmer’s — pro­moted as a way of rais­ing cash to pre­serve wildlife pop­u­la­tions— fail to live up to its prom­ise. And even more im­por­tantly, they’ve seen lion habi­tat shrink and many beasts killed by lo­cal res­i­dents be­cause of con­flict with live­stock and agri­cul­ture.

When hu­mans and lions clash, the king of the jun­gle usu­ally loses.

“We should be very wor­ried,” said Ox­ford Univer­sity lion re­searcher Hans Bauer, who is based in Ethiopia. “The num­bers are clear. They are in dra­matic de­cline.”

Ex­perts es­ti­mate there were about 75,000 African lions in 1980; now there are be­tween 20,000 and 32,000. Last year the United States Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice pro­posed plac­ing African lions on the threat­ened-but-not-en­dan­gered list. On its red list of species in trou­ble, the In­ter­na­tional Union for the Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture calls the lion “vul­ner­a­ble,” one step away from en­dan­gered.

The num­ber of lions in East Africa dropped 59 per­cent be­tween 1993 and 2014. Lion counts in West Africa fell 66 per­cent in the same time pe­riod; lions there “are on the brink of ex­tinc­tion, they are des­per­ately rare,” said famed Duke Univer­sity con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gist Stu­art Pimm.

Only in the south­ern part of Africa are lions’ num­bers ris­ing, slightly, be­cause of ef­forts to pro­tect them. And that’s where Ce­cil was shot.

“The rea­son Ce­cil was be­com­ing iconic was that it lived in a na­tional park; It lived in pro­tec­tion,” Pimm said. He said if hun­ters can lure out of the park and kill even Ce­cil — leg­endary in Zim­babwe, known for his ma­jes­tic black mane — “it does not bode well” for other lions.

That’s why even though hunt­ing isn’t the main cause for the lions’ de­cline, it splits the con­ser­va­tion com­mu­nity more than any other fac­tor, Pimm said. Some see it as a way to pro­vide money for con­ser­va­tion — just as duck hun­ters do in the United States — other see it as in­ef­fec­tual, too costly and even un­eth­i­cal.

“Hunt­ing in Africa is a com­plex is­sue,” said Pimm. “Kenya does not al­low hunt­ing of any kind and Tan­za­nia sets aside more of its land for hunt­ing than it does for eco­log­i­cal parks.”

A decade ago, top lion re­searcher Craig Packer and his team came up with a way to al­low lim­ited tro­phy hunt­ing of lions and not hurt their dwin­dling num­bers. If only cer­tain, older, un­at­tached lions, iden­ti­fi­able by nose color, were hunted in spe­cific ways, the prac­tice could be sus­tain­able. His team even pub­lished a guide on telling the age of a lion by nose color to help tro­phy hun­ters go af­ter lions in a sus­tain­able way.

“It led to me be­ing kicked out of Tan­za­nia,” said Packer, on the phone from a game pre­serve in South Africa. “In Africa it’s a busi­ness. It’s very cyn­i­cal and very cor­rupt.”

Other sci­en­tists say his vo­cal an­ti­hunt­ing ad­vo­cacy got him in trou­ble.

Bauer takes a more nu­anced po­si­tion on tro­phy hunt­ing. Stud­ies show hun­ters pay as much as US$50,000 to gov­ern­ments and guides, with some of the money go­ing to con­ser­va­tion while the rest boosts the econ­omy. In the­ory, Bauer said, “there’s a lot of habi­tat in Africa where lions ex­ist be­cause of tro­phy hunt­ing.” While it re­moves in­di­vid­ual lions, “it pre­serves habi­tat.”

But Bauer added, “it’s very of­ten poorly man­aged as in the case of Ce­cil where a lion gets lured out of the habi­tat. This type of mis­man­age­ment hap­pens much more than hits the news.”

Bauer and his Ox­ford col­league Clau­dio Sillero said as bad as tro­phy hunt­ing can be — es­ti­mates of lions killed each year range from 600 to more than 1,000 — habi­tat loss and con­flicts be­tween lions and lo­cals over live­stock and agri­cul­ture are big­ger prob­lems.


Artist Mark Balma paints a mu­ral of Ce­cil, a well-known lion killed by Min­nesota den­tist Wal­ter Palmer dur­ing a guided bow hunt­ing trip in Zim­babwe, as part of a silent protest out­side Palmer’s of­fice in Bloom­ing­ton, Min­nesota, Wed­nes­day, July 29.

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