Wildlife & Wild Places

Culling to Conserve: A Hard Truth for Lion Conservation

People that don’t live in Africa tend to learn about wildlife conservation in easy-to-understand terminology. But safeguarding animal species like lions is often more complex than mainstream media sound bites would have their audiences believe.

The National Post recently reported that management from Zimbabwe’s Bubye Valley Conservancy was considering a controversial move to cull upwards of 200 lions out of a rough population of 500 in order to ensure the reserve’s wildlife biodiversity.

It was also reported that since the growing calls to end trophy hunting, due in large part to the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park last year, conservancies like Bubye are no longer seeing the funding necessary to adequately cover conservation costs, which includes fence maintenance, financing local schools and health clinics, and providing meat to local people.

Given the many challenges conservationists face in Africa, coupled with culling and trophy hunting being such contentious issues, I decided to reach out to Dr. Byron du Preez, a Bubye Valley Conservancy project leader and member of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.

Specifically, I was hoping for clearer answers regarding the potential paradox that increasing calls for hunting bans in Africa have on existing lion populations, and how that may be playing out within the recent culling conundrum.

Fortunately, Du Preez went one step further by clearing up what was initially reported, clarifying the proposed cull, explaining how culling works, and elaborating on the dangers of promoting single species management.

The following is his official statement:

Clarification on the Proposed Lion Cull

I am an independent scientist working on the Bubye Valley Conservancy, focused on lion ecology, which actually means just about every aspect of the ecosystem, such is the influence that lions have. I am neither pro- nor anti-hunting. I simply focus on practical conservation solutions that actually work in the real world.

We are hopeful that we will be able to translocate some lions, although all previous attempts to translocate lions out of the Bubye Valley Conservancy have been derailed by factors entirely out of our control. However, if the species was in as much trouble as the sensationalist reports like to focus on, one would think that it would be a lot easier to find new homes for these magnificent animals than it actually is.

‘There is basically no more space left in Africa for a new viable population of lions.’

The fact remains that habitat destruction is their biggest enemy, and there is basically no more space left in Africa for a new viable population of lions.

A portrait of an African lion (Panthera leo). Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.
A portrait of an African lion (Panthera leo). Photograph by Chris Johns/National Geographic Creative.

The Science of Culling

A cull is not a once-off fix (neither is translocation, nor contraception), but would be more of an ongoing management operation conducted on an annual basis. When given adequate space, resources, and protection, lion populations can explode, such as they have done on the Bubye Valley Conservancy.

Reducing numbers to alleviate overpopulation pressure does nothing to permanently solve the problem, nor halts the species’ breeding potential; [it] only slows it down for a relatively short time until their population growth returns to the exponential phase once again.

Culling is a management tool that may be used for many species. That includes: elephants, lions, kangaroos, and deer, basically animals that have very little natural control mechanisms other than disease and starvation, and that are now bounded by human settlements and live in smaller areas than they did historically.

As responsible wildlife managers who have a whole ecosystem full of animals to conserve (not just lions), we have therefore discussed culling as an option for controlling the lion population, but have agreed that, for now, this is not necessary just yet and we will continue to try and translocate these animals until our hand is forced.

As already mentioned, there is very little space left in Africa that can have lions but doesn’t already. Also, where lions do occur, especially in parks and private wildlife areas, they often exist at higher densities than they ever did historically.

This is mainly due to augmented surface water supply resulting in greater numbers of non-migratory prey that now no longer limit lion nutrition and energy availability, allowing the lion population to rapidly expand.

For example, successful hunting to feed cubs all the way through to adulthood and independence is one of the greatest stresses for a lion, and often results in dead cubs and reduced population growth. In turn, a high density of lions can severely reduce the density of their prey, ultimately leading to the death of the lions via disease and starvation—far more horrific than humane culling operations conducted by professionals.

The Dangers of Single Species Management

Lions are the apex predator wherever they occur, and as such exert a level of top-down control on the rest of the ecosystem. Lions prey on a wide variety of species, and we are starting to see declines in even the more common and robust prey such as zebra and wildebeest—not to mention the more sensitive species such as sable, kudu, nyala, warthog, and even buffalo and giraffe.

Apart from their prey, lions are aggressively competitive and will go out of their way to kill any leopard, cheetah, wild dog, or hyena that they encounter, and have caused major declines in these species, not just on the Bubye Valley Conservancy, but elsewhere in Africa where lion densities are high.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), cheetah are listed as vulnerable, and wild dogs are endangered.

It is easy to simply focus on the number of lions remaining in Africa that has fallen steeply over the last century from ~100,000 to ~20,000 today, but which is directly linked to the reduction in available habitat.

Simply focusing on increasing the abundance of one species at the cost of another cannot be considered a conservation success—assuming that holistic conservation for the benefit of the entire ecosystem is the end goal—no matter how iconic that species is.

Luckily, lions kill lions, resulting in more lion mortality than any other species—including man on the Bubye Valley Conservancy—and in an ideal world the lion population would level off at a putative carrying capacity where lions control their own numbers (deaths from conflict equal or exceed new births). However, it is possible and probable (man-made water points increase the carrying capacity of — and therefore also the competition and conflict between — all wildlife species) that this would still be at the cost of certain other sensitive species.

Ecosystem stability is related to size (and conversely ecosystem sensitivity is inversely related to size) and smaller areas need to control their lion numbers a lot more carefully than large areas such as the Bubye Valley Conservancy, which is over 3,000 square kilometres [1,160 square miles]. In fact, small reserves in South Africa alone culled over 200 lions in total between 2010 and 2012 ,according to the 2013 report from the Lion Management Forum workshop.

Understanding Carrying Capacity

The Bubye Valley Conservancy does not rely on trophy hunting to manage the lion population. I will discuss the economics of hunting in brief. The most recent and robust lion population survey data calculate a current lion population on the Bubye Valley Conservancy of between 503 and 552 lions (it is impossible to get a 100 percent accurate count on the exact lion number — which also changes daily with births and deaths).

Carrying capacity is an extremely fluid concept, and changes monthly, seasonally, and annually depending on all sorts of factors including rainfall, disease (of both predator and prey), and economics.

It is estimated that 500 lions eat more than U.S. $2.4 million each year (the meat value used is a very conservative $3 per kg – compare that to the price of steak in a supermarket, and then remember that the Bubye Valley Conservancy used to be a cattle-ranching area, and if wildlife becomes unviable, then there is no reason not to convert it back to a cattle ranching area once again).

A male lion (Panthera leo) guards a zebra carcass. Photograph by James P. Blair/National Geographic Creative.
A male lion (Panthera leo) guards a zebra carcass. Photograph by James P. Blair/National Geographic Creative.

To give the question of carrying capacity a fair, if necessarily vague, answer, I would personally estimate that the upper carrying capacity of lions on the Bubye Valley Conservancy would be around 500 animals—assuming that they are allowed to be hunted and therefore generate the revenue to offset the cost of their predation.

Remember, lion numbers can get out of hand. And if there was no predation, then thousands upon thousands of zebra and wildebeest and impala would need to be culled to prevent them from over grazing the habitat, leading to soil erosion, starvation, and disease.

The ecosystem is a very complex machine and whether anyone likes it or not, humans have intervened with cities, roads, dams, pumped water, fences, and livestock. The only way to mitigate that intervention is by further, more focused, and carefully considered intervention, for the sake of the entire ecosystem.

It is important to bear in mind that the wildlife here, and in the majority of other wildlife areas in Africa (hunting areas exceed the total area conserved by Africa’s national parks by more than 20 percent), does not exist as our, or anyone else’s, luxury.

The Bubye Valley Conservancy is a privately owned wildlife area, or to put it another way, it is a business. The fact that it is a well-run business is the reason why it is one of the greatest conservation successes in Africa, converting from cattle to wildlife in 1994 (only 22 years ago) and now hosting Zimbabwe’s largest contiguous lion population at one of the highest densities in Africa, as well as the third largest black rhino population in the world (after Kruger and Etosha).

This is only possible because it is a business, and is self-sufficient in generating the funds to maintain fences, roads, pay staff, manage the wildlife, pump water, and support the surrounding communities—all extremely necessary factors involved in keeping wildlife alive in Africa.

Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience around the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa's wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there. A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda, where he studies lion and elephant conservation. You can visit his website at http://www.michaelwschwartz.com.
  • Nova Nicolson

    Excellent article – informative and FACTUAL – lets hope and pray this puts to rest the unnecessary drama and nastiness that previous articles have caused as a result of emotion and twisting the facts…BVC are proactive in conservation at the highest level and these folk have the interests of all the animals at heart and work hard and long hours monitoring and caring for all these beautiful animals – you have my respect! …A must read!

  • James Duncan-Anderson

    I think this is a superbly written article and does put into perspective all that is needed for conservation to take place. Unfortunately to conserve an ecosystem there has to be a balance. We as humans have not aligned with this balance and due to overpopulation, encroachment of wildlife areas and human-animal conflict, the wildlife has to take the fall.

    Now the big disappointment that continues to plague my mind with all these arguments is still the focus on purely justifying hunting. The sensitive issue of conservation with culling being included as well but the entire backlash and response from the general public was on the American guest whom shot the big pride male Cecil. My argument is the problem with hunting when it becomes unethical. The focus should not be on the hunter from the US, who has brought money and helped with the arguments of hunting in the article, but the professional hunter that took on this guest and allowed him to shoot this specific animal. His excuses are unacceptable being a professional in his job to allow a pride male to be shot. If they have an over-population of lion then in order to keep it sustainable these should have been focused on as ethical hunting. The professional hunter in charge should be held 100% accountable for what he allowed to happen, he should lose his license and he should feel the brunt of this situation as he is the professional in charge, he is the one that is the voice of wildlife and the interpreter of the wilderness that he is bringing a guest to. Being a bow hunt they would have to have got quite close to the lion and if he was a good professional hunter he would know the individual in the cross-hairs.

    Unfortunately the ethical hunters get thrown in with these guys and they have their livelihoods tampered with. With this goes corruption of governments and hunting camps that do not contribute to the community the money or development that was promised with these conservation initiatives.

    This is what needs to be focused on, this needs to be stopped and this is what really needs to be blown in a stink over social media and in powerful articles of the above and like.

    In closing, hunting can be justified and it works whether people like the act or not but when it steps out of the parameters then it becomes unjustifiable.

  • John JACKSON

    SPOT ON.

  • jana

    Well said

  • Arnold Thomas

    Well written. A pity that most in Europe and North Am will not understand that as Africa industrializes it will become more like us. Less room for the mega fauna. The big animals will be just revenant populations, carefully managed and confined to small reservations. Just like the western countries.

  • Nico Grobler

    Thank you for a well written article – in layman’s terms, easy to understand for all – especially the anti-culling and anti-hunting fraternity.
    Ecosystem processes requires holistic thinking to understand, and to change a single species into a pet as the only way to appreciate the species is not adding value to the conservation of the lion as a free roaming wild animal at all.

  • Pete fick

    Finally, thanks to Nat Geo the actual truth about facts on the ground are getting out. The reality of the situation is, due largely to comments based on politics, emotions and ignorance, that this will be the end of huge tracts of land for our wild life in Africa and elsewhere. It amazes me that people never want to re look at at what happened in Kenya when hunting was banned – fact, over 70% of that countries wildlife was lost. Do we really want to make that mistake again !?
    As a passionate conservationist very involved with the BVC it really sickens me, after proving we have the most successful conservation story in recent times and the most successful lion story ever in Africa, that elements around the world cannot see this.
    Well I can tell you all now that if the US government and USF&WS does implement a total lion ban on trophy lion imports then they are clearly the biggest threat to most of Africa`s lions, fact. I just cannot understand how the US and other countries cannot work with the relevant governments in Africa to ensure that hunting areas that are genuinely improving the enhancement of all wild life species and their habitat are not punished due to some people abusing wildlife, fact.

  • Alan Snooker

    Perhaps you can help me, because there is something that does not seem quite right with the BVC ‘culling’ story.

    From the lion population BVC maintains, for there to now to be an additional ‘surplus’ of 200 lions, the breeding of the ‘surplus’ must have happened over a very long time period. Surely, the level of breeding at BVC is managed and has to be sustainable regardless of BVC’s stated partial reliance on trophy hunting income (from an annual quota of how many lions, 20?).

    The point is that any fallout from Cecil’s demise in July 2015, and/or the US FWS’ trophy import restrictions announced at the end of 2015 cannot have any scientific correlation to BVC’s current ‘surplus’ of 200 lions bred from the lion population under its management.

    Let’s hope other reserves can now step-in and take the risk of accepting BVC’s ‘surplus’ prides into their reserves.

  • Pete Fick – BVC

    A very good point was made yesterday to me by a BVC supporter – how hunting only 2 – 3% of the BVC lions allows us to protect our most threatened species, rhinos. The BVC has the largest black rhino population on private land in the world, 3rd largest black population and obviously the biggest population in Zimbabwe. These are not even our own rhino, belong to our country and our own government unfortunately does not have the funds to help us BUT the BVC will fight tooth and nail to do everything to protect them. During 2015 the BVC itself spent over US$500k just on anti-rhino poaching operations (we lost 26 rhino during 2015.) Our trophy lion hunts income amounts to over 30% of total income and without this there is no question that the rhinos will be under even more threat. Remember too that we derive no income at all from our rhino. What most people also do not understand is that even if we derived enough income from just ecotourism to run the Conservancy, we still have to manage the over population of our lions. I need to re-emphasize that the BVC will always, first and foremost, prefer to find suitable homes for the excess lions, rather than culling them.In my personal opinion, I believe there are places in Africa we can translocate lions but for obvious reasons, if the US ban on lion imports stays most of these areas will not take them.

  • Deborah MCVicker

    All BIG CATS have to kill in order to survive and keep their genes ALIVE from EXTINCTION. SAVE OUR CATS. Best regards, DEborah MCVicker

  • Simon Williamson

    Im not always a fan of NG but well done for publishing this well written and non emotional article. If it pays it stays, charity and government funding is unreliable.

  • Bill Fold

    From a hunter/conservationist point of view, this is an excellent article. They finally interviewed an impartial scientist.

  • Doug Dederich

    Why don’t they knock them out, Neuter or spay, and let them live?

  • Ben

    Unfortunately, I cannot respond directly to another comment. But, to the person who suggests spay / neuter and release: YOU DON’T GET IT. The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough sleeping space for these animals. They are EATING everything else. Gender neutralizing them is just as shortsighted as doing the same to feral cats. They destroy other species. Many populations of birds have been negatively affected by feral cats because, being gender neutral doesn’t stop you from being hungry. Being anti-hunting means you’re anti species preservation and this article does an outstanding job of illustrating that.

  • Grayson

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m so tired of the “stop the murder” comments in social media without taking the time to understand the complexity of the issue. At some point unchecked the food supply runs out for these animals. So not only do we potentially lose other species but the Lions die a slow painful starvation death. Most hunters I know or hear from are very ethical in there kill. If they don’t have a clean shot and a quick kill they wait. In my mine a preferable way to die. And in a lot of cases the meat is not wasted. Even lion meat. It is donated to local villagers etc as a source of protein. I heard a story from a hunter where he was on an elk hunt and his wife was having dinner with friends. They asked about the husband, so she told them he was on an elk hunt. one of the people replied, “that’s diplorable”. I guess the irony that he was eating a steak was lost on him. In countries where food and protein are at a premium everything is food. They don’t care who killed it.

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