Judicious breeding within the framework of ethical and sustainable utilisation, can assist lion farmers in ensuring that by 2050, there will still be lions outside our African national parks and protected areas. The alternative is to breed lions elsewhere in the world and utilise them there as exotic species.
People and lions cannot survive in isolation. Both depend on an efficient ecosystem. People are therefore searching for solutions to preserve all wildlife species in Africa within an ecosystem where they can survive sustainably and which man can trust for his survival.
During the 2016 International Game Farming Symposium in Windhoek, Prof Pieter Potgieter, chairman of the South African Predator Association (Sapa), said the conservation contribution of lions bred on farms, is being questioned by several conservationists.
Lack of understanding
“The reasons for the disregard of its contribution to conservation are vague and obscure, range from genetic pollution to non-adaptability of lions bred in captivity, and are fuelled mainly by either a lack of understanding of the real reasons for the decline in lion numbers, or of what is really going on in the South African lion industry. However, it is mostly pure bias fuelled by emotion or own financial gain.
“During the 20th century, lion numbers in Africa experienced a sharp decline. Over the past few decades these numbers declined by 30 to 50% to an estimated 30 000 lions. Human population growth is mainly responsible for this decline. Over the last century, the African population grew from 95,9 to 622 million in 2000 and, based on expectations, approximately four billion people will inhabit Africa by 2100,” Prof Potgieter explains.
The African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (Alert) agrees. In Kenya, 17 of 18 lions that were collared in conservation areas, were killed because they preyed on local cattle. In Botswana, 68 lions were extinguished for the same reason in a small area next to the Moremi Game Park.
Management of trophy hunting
Other reasons for the decline in lion numbers include poorly managed trophy hunting, diseases and climate change as well as inbreeding depression. According to Alert, lion numbers have declined significantly in areas where governments allow the hunting of free-roaming lions, although there were no other aspects negatively affecting the numbers.
If one accepts that there are 25 000 lions in Africa, then one can safely assume that there are approximately 3 000 grown trophy quality male lions of which 60% at most roam outside of conservation areas. This means that around 1 800 male lions are available for hunting. Approximately 665 lions are hunted annually, which translates into an unsustainable yield.
Advocates of trophy hunting say it gives lions monetary value, generate an income from land that would otherwise be unused and provides income for local communities that promote conservation. In the seven African countries where trophy hunting is allowed on 696 708km², the trophy hunting industry employs only 9 703 people and in most cases only for a period of six months. On the other hand, the ‘bush meat’ industry in Ghana alone represents an estimated turnover of $250 million per annum.
Disease and climate change
Diseases and climate change also pose threats to Africa’s lion population. In 1994, around 30% of the lion population in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara died from a virus related to the one that causes cat flu. If a smaller group of lions is to be infected in such a way, they will not survive. Approximately half of the known lion populations consist of 60 animals or less.
The lion population in the Kruger National Park suffers from bovine tuberculosis and experts are of the opinion that 75 to 80% of these lions can be lost by 2030. They claim that all lions are infected by one virus that could threaten their survival.
With the fragmented lion population in Africa, the risk of inbreeding is a real problem of which the effect is apparently completely underestimated. With inbreeding, the genetic variation decreases, fertility drops, more cubs die, animals become less adapted and immunity against diseases declines, Alert says.
Human population growth
Prof Potgieter says the situation will not improve. “By 2100, approximately four billion people will inhabit Africa. Pressure on the lion population will increase, as will the danger of extinction of the species. Just like rare and exotic game species, the approximately 7 000 lions on 200 South African game farms are also bred for hunting, conservation and tourism. It has developed into a multimillion rand industry, just like the buffalo, rhino and sable industries. Sapa was established in 2009 with the aim of developing lion farming into a responsible and sustainable industry, based on the principle of sustainable utilisation.
“We hunt lions bred in captivity and sell their bones to the Chinese and Vietnamese, because it is a valuable by-product. This is what sustainable utilisation means. Everything is done strictly according to the guidelines of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) and under the watchful eye of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).
“The approximately 600 lions that are hunted annually, provide an attractive income for lion farmers, pay for the care of the lions that are not being hunted, provide jobs to around 500 people with 2 000 dependants and make a significant contribution to the well-being of wild lions,” he says.
Lions in captivity
Prof Potgieter says the view created by activists that lions bred in captivity are used for canned hunting, is untrue. They are hunted on foot, just like buffalo or any other game. Sapa is of the view that lions bred in captivity have a value and contribute to the well-being of wild lions. Hence the organisation started a lion conservation project, developed a lion promotion plan and succeeded in saving the species that was on the brink of extinction, through a combination of protection and utilisation.
Prof Potgieter says hunting is an element of utilisation, and controlled hunting provides lions with good monetary value and little impact on the environment – and it attracts investment in the species. “Not all lions on game farms are kept in small camps and significant numbers can be described as free-roaming. The animals are well managed, properly recorded, properly marked and added to a database, and with careful management the problems that caused the wild lion population to decline are eliminated.
“The lion industry is involved in and donates money to research projects, local communities and schools. Norms and standards and an accreditation and marking system were built into the lion promotion programme for strict monitoring of the breeding and hunting of lions,” he says. -Andries Gouws, Stockfarm
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