Concerned for the future of our lions, Safari for Real guide and author Lex Hes takes aim at the hunting profession
The biggest drawcard for tourists to Africa is without a doubt the chance to see Africa’s iconic big cats: cheetah, lion and leopard. There is very little that is more exciting than coming across one of these magnificent predators and especially then spending time with them in the hope that they might go hunting. There are few places in the world where one can observe large predators so easily, with little or no interference from humans. What an incredible privilege!
In my wanderings around Africa, I get to visit some truly amazing wilderness areas, many of them with an abundance of big predators. However, there are some beautiful wild places that seem to be ecologically intact where we battle to find these exciting animals. Further investigation into why this is reveals a multitude of reasons, among them poaching, human conflict with wild animals and big game hunting. The first two problems require major intervention, with many complications, but the last is quite simple to solve: stop the hunting of big cats in the wild.
What many tourists to Africa don’t realise is that Africa’s iconic big cat, the lion, has declined in numbers in the wild by more than 80 per cent since the 1970s, with an estimated number of more than 400,000 in those days compared to less than 30,000 today.
The hunting of wild lions in many parts of Africa is still allowed. Countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe allow the hunting of lions in Game Management Areas (GMAs), blocks of lands surrounding national parks which act as buffer zones between communities and the national park. The theory is that lions that venture out of the national park can be hunted, in order to reduce the chances of human conflict. Unfortunately, because of the ethics of hunters and hunting operations, what often happens is that the wrong lions end being hunted.
Lions are territorial animals, with coalitions of males establishing territories around the home ranges of various prides of lions in the wilderness. The role of these males is to mate with the lionesses and then to ensure that no intruding nomadic lions come in and kill their cubs.
It is vitally important for the stability of the pride and the cubs that these males hold their territory for the time that it takes to successfully raise those cubs; usually two to three years. If something should happen to any of the coalition males, such as one or two of them being hunted, this creates a weakness and an opportunity for nomadic lions to move in, usually resulting in a period of great instability during which cubs could get killed and lionesses could get killed or injured trying to defend their cubs.
This period of instability can last for a period of six months or longer, until new males move in and stabilise the situation, and usually leads to a decline in lion numbers.
The theory supporting hunting lions in GMAs is that the hunter will take out old lions that have already been pushed out of their territories, or young males that have not yet established territories. But in reality the hunters will take what they can get. If they have a client who is after a big trophy, he is very unlikely to accept a beaten-up old male, or a younger male that doesn’t yet have a full mane. If the hunter can’t find the ideal trophy there is a very good chance that he’ll drag bait along the border of the national park or use recordings of calls to try and entice lions out of the national park.
Any hunter worth his salt should be able to identify the lions in his area of operation and should avoid shooting the territorial males at all costs. I’d love to know how many hunters do this. Of course, once a territorial male gets killed, all hell breaks loose within lion society in that area… but once things settle down after some months, the hunter will be back.
The very famous case of Cecil, the magnificent lion killed near Hwange National Park is a case in point.
Finally, I’d like to mention the canned lion controversy which has been highlighted by the documentary Blood Lions. This is of course an abhorrent practice, but what worries me about it is that, even in the movie itself, people seem to think that it is OK to hunt wild lions because of what they call the “principle of fair chase”. This suggests that hunting a wild lion is “better” because the lion has much more freedom and a greater area into which to disappear in order to avoid the hunter. However, in my opinion, there is no such thing as fair chase, not when hunters use rifles with telescopic sights, the skills of trackers to track them down, the use of dogs to scent them out, baiting and calls to attract the lions, and even the use of drones.
It is my strong belief that we need to do something quickly to stop the disappearance of our lions from our wilderness landscapes. We need to stop the hunting of lions in the wild and rather turn these GMAs into tourist destinations where long-term eco-tourism projects can be developed in partnership with local communities.
Lex Hes is a renowned photographer, author, naturalist and guide, and is a director-guide of Safari for Real. Images copyright Lex Hes.