Vanishing lions


Last week Ed blogged about a new PLoS paper implicating canine distemper, parasites, and climate changes in the severe reductions in lion some lion populations seen during the last 15 years in Africa. Coincidentally, the PBS show Nature featured a special last night called “Vanishing Lions” about similar problems, with the interactions between lions and humans in Kenya dominated the film;

In many places lions are being ecologically strangled to death. With their ranges restricted to parks (lions who wander outside and kill livestock are killed), lions in some parts of Africa are facing increasing problems like disease, inbreeding, poaching, and encroachment by humans. The fact that some lions develop a habit of taking livestock does not help, either, and although some commercial ranchers are willing to turn the other cheek (to a point), local people almost always seek revenge. As Cynthia Moss hinted in the conclusion of her book Elephant Memories, whenever people occupy an area and start farming there are problems with wildlife.

When people settle down in one area to grow crops and raise livestock the creatures in that area might start exploiting those resources, seemingly leaving people with little recourse but to eliminate the cats eating their cattle and the elephants that tear up the corn fields. It is possible to put up some impressive defenses, rock bomas with fences and cacti, but such structures are expensive and beyond the means of most people. Lining your livestock pens with a thick wall of acacia will help but it will not stop all losses. When your livelihood depends on what you can grow and how many animals you can raise there isn’t much room for large animals that share the same land. It is far easier to poison or shoot predators than to save up to build solid walls and the most convenient thing to do is often to wipe out a threat rather than diminish the impact of it.

There are people who are working to make a difference, however. In areas where the depredations of lions cause conflict financial incentives, particularly from tourism, can help bring about change. (The documentary brought up the possibility that controlled hunting could bring in revenue to parks to manage lions. While I personally find trophy hunting disgusting I can see why it might appeal as an alternative source of income. Such a system would have to be managed with extreme care and other options should be investigated before killing lions in an attempt to save others.) One example highlighted by the documentary is the Il Ngwesi Lodge in Northern Kenya. Run in connection with the local Masai, the documentary stated that 40% of the profits are filtered back into the community and this allows the people to absorb small losses to the lions. It may not be the perfect solution in all cases, but in this particular case it appears to have allowed people to benefit from predators that were once seen as a major threat.

Indeed, financial incentives to protect wildlife appear to be increasingly important, although in many places corrupt governments and social upheaval makes getting the money to people difficult (and conservation a more minor concern). Furthermore, just getting money to people is not good enough. I would like to see more well-funded projects to allow livestock owners to build higher-security bomas to protect their animals at night, preventing lions from taking livestock being better than compensating for it afterwards. This would not be a cure-all, either, and it seems that the conservation of wildlife in Africa is becoming increasingly complex and challenges vary across the continent.

It can be a bit difficult to write about the conservation of animals that are potentially dangerous to humans. What right do I have, as someone who has never even been to Africa, to make recommendations about what people who live with these animals should do? The way I see lions, leopards, hyenas, and other animals can be starkly different from the way people who actually live next-door to them do, and it is not enough to simply say that we should preserve predators because of their aesthetic or even scientific value. As is often the case, saving predators requires helping people just as much as it does studying the creatures that are threatened, and it is a certainty that developing nations will continue to present challenges for those who want to stem the tide of extinction.

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