Given that in Africa wild lions are in catastrophic decline–the latest International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) figures suggest that fewer than 20,000 remain–it may come as a shock to discover that as many as 10,000 of the continent’s iconic big cats were legally hunted and exported as trophies in the ten years ending in 2013.
The vast majority of these lions were bred in captivity for the purpose of hunting. The mostly American and European sports hunters took the lions to their home countries as trophies–mounted heads or skins for their collections.
The tally for hunted lions is likely even higher than 10,000, says Dereck Joubert, wildlife filmmaker and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, because not all hunters take trophies. Some hunt just for the sport.
Six African countries where lions still range freely–South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania–were analysed using the official CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) trade database, which lists animal and plant products exported and imported internationally.
Kenya and Botswana are two lion-range countries notably omitted from this list. Both countries have outlawed trophy hunting in an effort to boost lion populations, although Botswana only recently adopted this measure.
Even though the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists lions as Vulnerable (facing a high risk of extinction in the wild), African range lions in all six countries are listed by CITES under Appendix II, which means lion products may be exported under a permit system. Permits are granted “if the relevant authorities are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.”
South Africa Tops List
Of the six nations, South Africa ranks highest in terms of most trophies exported. The country has registered a staggering average of 748 lion trophies exported per year.
Tanzania is next with an annual average of almost 150 lion trophies, followed by Zimbabwe and Zambia (each between 60-70 a year), Mozambique (22) and Namibia less than 20 a year). Botswana, before banning trophy hunting in January 2014, tabled an average of 10 trophies each year.
The figures are not 100 percent accurate as there are a number of discrepancies that creep into the database, such as countries reporting the number of permits issued but not the actual permits used. However, the figures give a general idea of just how impactful trophy hunting is on lions.
|Country||Exported Trophies 2003-2013||Estimated Wild Lion Population||Estimated Captive Lion Population|
|South Africa||7487||2100||Approx. 7000|
 Based on latest figures from LionAlert.org
South Africa tops the list but most of the lions hunted for trophies (two thirds of the country’s total lion population) are what the government terms “captive bred” or “ranch” lions. According to a spokesperson for the South African Department of Environment, less than 10 wild lions are hunted in South Africa a year.
Currently in South Africa there are almost 200 breeding facilities where lions are raised exclusively for trophy hunting. The big cats are kept in small enclosures and are habituated to humans, making them easy targets for hunters. The practice has come under fire recently with the release of the film Blood Lions. As Ian Michler, the documentary’s main narrator, says “it’s about breeding wildlife as intensively as they can, as quickly as they can, to make as much money as they can.”
Zimbabwe’s Lions Gone in a Decade
Zimbabwe’s situation is worse because trophy hunting involves vulnerable wild lion populations. Researchers, co-ordinated by a team at Duke Universty’s Nicholas School of the Environment and partially funded by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI), revealed in 2012 that wild lion populations in that country “are in trouble”.
Almost 700 lion trophies were legally exported during the decade under review, but the current population, according to the 2012 survey, stood at only 850. This suggests that, at the current rate and if lion numbers don’t increase, which is unlikely, in another decade trophy hunters alone will have wiped out nearly all remaining lions in Zimbabwe.
In Zambia an average of 65 trophies are exported each year. According to another 2012 research paper, most parks are registering free-falling numbers of lions. A park like the 1,500-square-mile (3,866-square-kilometer) Liuwa Plains National Park has just 3 individuals.
The collapse of their lion population prompted Zambian authorities to ban trophy hunting of big cats in 2013. Zambian Tourism and Arts Minister, Jean Kapata, cited big cat numbers “too low to have a sustainable hunting industry.” However, the country lifted the ban earlier this year. According to a recent CNN report, it was “because the government needed the money to fund conservation.”
Things look only marginally better in Mozambique and Namibia. Nambia exports less than 20 lion trophies per year. But that country’s lion population is considerably smaller at just 600 individuals. It indicates hunting still has a detrimental impact on the population as a third of the current total number during the decade was exported as trophies.
In Mozambique, lion numbers in the Niassa Reserve, the country’s largest game park, may be increasing. This is according to Colleen Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project, an NGO working to conserve large carnivore populations there. She said in an email to the Associated Press in July that it was because of the heavy poaching of elephants, which has provided “the carnivores with a bounty of carcasses to eat as well as vulnerable elephant calves to hunt.”
However, farther south lions are disappearing rapidly. A study of lions in the northwest Tete Province of Mozambique in 2013 suggests 185 lions in the region, down from the 2009 survey of 295 lions. The Gorongosa National Park that once had over 200 lions now has less than 30 indivudals. In recognition of the country’s fast declining numbers due to trophy hunting, CITES has enforced an export quota on lions since 2012.
Tanzania has the largest wild lion population of all African nations. Still, almost 1,500 lion trophies have been exported in the decade following 2003 with overall numbers declining alarmingly. In the Katavi National Park, for example, 1,118 of the big cats were counted in 1993. By 2014 there was not a single lion remaining.
Lion expert, Professor Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, found the results of their research in 2009 that the trophy hunting rate of big cats throughout Tanzania “had consistently been too high.” Packer predicted that the future population of lions in Tanzania would be seriously decimated unless fewer big cats were killed by trophy hunters each year.
Another problem with trophy hunting, as Jeffrey Flocken, North America Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), says, is that “hunters are not like natural predators. They target the largest specimens, with the biggest tusks, manes, antlers, or horns.”
According to Andrew Loveridge of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCru) at Oxford University, a scientific group specializing in wild carnivores,
sport hunters go almost exclusively for adult lion males. This has caused a decline in numbers of adult males in the total lion population. Loveridge says that “hunting predators on the boundaries of national parks causes significant disturbance and knock-on effects” such as infanticide when new males entered the prides.
According to the 2015 IUCN Red List analysis on lions, which Packer co-authored, there is concern that current management regimes in terms of trophy hunting have contributed to an astonishing decline of 42 percent of the continent’s total population.
The CITES listing of lion is currently undergoing a Periodic Review. The IUCN survey for 2015 has recommended a change in categorization for African lions from Vulnerable to Endangered. If that happens CITES may be prompted to list lions under Appendix I but as is the case with the other species on the same listing, it does not guarantee the days of hunting lions for trophies will soon be over.