Wild lions hunted to the verge of extinction

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2003:

LONDON–Wild African lions have been hunted to the brink of
extinction, warn researchers Laurence Frank of the University of
California and David Macdonald of the Oxford University Wildlife
Conserv-ation Research Unit.
Frank, writing in the September 18 edition of New Scientist,
has investigated African lions, hyenas, and other large predators in
Kenya for more than 20 years. Macdonald, editor of the Encyclopedia
of Mammals, directed a recent five-year study of lion conservation
in Zimbabwe and Botswana.
The wild African lion population has fallen from 230,000 to
23,000 in under 20 years, said Frank. Cheetahs have fallen to
15,000 and wild dogs to 5,500 over the same time, but were far fewer
to begin with.
All are in trouble, Frank explained, but lions are declining
the most rapidly, as the most dangerous of the large African
predators and the species most coveted for a trophy.

“People know about elephants, gorillas, and rhinos,” Frank
told Robert Uhlig of the Daily Telegraph, “but they seem blissfully
unaware that these large carnivores are nearing the brink. People
have always killed predators,” for defense of lives and property,
and for status, “but there is only so much damage you can do with
spears and shields. Now everyone has rifles and poison. The problem
is not so much that predators kill people,” Frank continued, “but
that they kill livestock. Bullets and poison are always cheaper than
good husbandry,” while selling the right to kill a so-called problem
lion can become a windfall for whoever brokers the deal.
Macdonald, lecturing at the Zoolog-ical Society of London
three weeks later, strongly reinforced Frank’s message with his own
findings and those of associates.
“Of the adult males his team tagged or collared,” summarized
BBC News Online environment correspondent Alex Kirby, “63% were shot
by hunters. The resulting low density of male lions is exascerbated
by the hunters’ habit of shooting juvenile males when they find no
mature adults. This means males move widely, and may have ranges
about three times the size of a lioness’s range. So it is likelier
they will leave the protection of a park and move into hunting areas.”
Macdonald et al found that there are about 42 male lions
within their Zimbabwe research area, but the hunting quota for the
region from 1998 to 2000 was set at 63 lions.
“This unprecedented decline of lions is devastating!”
commented Youth for Conservation cofounder Josphat Ngonyo. “In Kenya
we are battling to keep ours alive.”
Ngonyo was able to confirm the bad news, however, from
direct observation.
“Nairobi Park has lost 47 lions since 1998,” he told ANIMAL
PEOPLE. “From April 28 to June 2, seven Nairobi National Park
lions were speared and mutilated,” apparently by herders. “Only 10
to 12 lions remain in the park and surrounding area. Five are
adults, the rest sub-adults and cubs. Human activities are
threatening the survival of the park,” Ngonyo continued. “The
relentless increase in the Nairobi human population and changing land
use patterns have blocked the migratory corridor to the park. The
few remaining crossings cannot sustain a sizable population.
“The real problem,” Ngonyo said, “is loss of prey. Lions
prey on herbivores. The herbivore population in the park and
surrounding area has dwindled due to poaching and game-cropping.
Nairobi National Park once generated more revenue than all the other
parks in Kenya combined,” Ngony noted, “but one needs only to take
a game drive to realize how barren it has become.”
Kalahari Raptor Centre co-director Chris Mercer [see page 6] documented the extirpation of wild lions from his part of Africa in
the opening chapters of his 2000 book For The Love Of Wildlife.
The recent rapid growth of lion hunting within fenced
enclosures of varying size in many African nations reflects the
disappearance of wild lions. The proprietors have shown the ability
to breed lions in volume, to demand, like puppy mill dogs.
But breeding lions in captivity from a limited gene pool does
not fill the ecological niche of lions in the wild, the experts
agree–and trying to restore wild populations, once lost, may not
be successful.
Even if genetic diversity could be sustained within the
captive population, the viability of wild prides depends not only on
individual fitness, but also upon acquired knowledge about the
habitat and prey transmitted chiefly by the females, who tend to
remain within their birth-pride.
Already the knowhow that lions need to survive in much of
their range may have been lost.

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