The Big Picture Surrounding Cecil the Lion’s Death: How Can We Save Lions?

posted: 07/29/15
by: Danny Clemens
Lion, photographed at Harnas Rehabilitation Centre.
Heinrich Van Den Berg

The world is outraged over the death of Cecil the lion, a well-known lion who was shot and killed earlier this month by an American tourist. The Internet has directed immense vitriol toward both the hunter who killed Cecil and the trophy hunting industry as a whole -- while it's important that we are discussing issues of conservation, there's something missing from the dialogue.

Without a doubt, lions need to be protected: lion populations in Africa have fallen nearly 90% since 1975. The answer to our lion crisis, however, is more complex than simply banning trophy hunting.

Many conservationists and organizations -- including the IUCN and the African Wildlife Foundation -- note that habitat destruction, prey depletion and human-lion conflict unrelated to trophy hunting are among the biggest threats to lion populations in Africa. The three threats are all interrelated, forming a vicious cycle that has decimated lion populations:

The bushmeat trade has had an extremely negative impact on the animals on which lions prey: large herbivore populations have dropped by as much as 85% in some areas of Africa, leaving lions hungry. As humans encroached upon animal habitats in recent years, they brought with them another food source: livestock. With fewer wild animals to eat -- and more domesticated cattle in close proximity -- lions have, out of necessity, begun to prey on livestock.

According to a 2003 study, 3.1% of all livestock lost in Cameroon's Waza National Park was lost to lions, amounting to losses of nearly $400 per farmer -- a significant amount, considering that the average income of a farming household in Africa is approximately $3,000. Fearing for their safety and financial livelihood, farmers have begun to proactively kill wild lions, reportedly leaving poisoned carcasses out "to eliminate predators".

Related: Lions Return to Rwanda Park for First Time in Two Decades

Although there is an intense ethical debate surrounding trophy hunting, it has been cited as a useful population management technique -- when regulated effectively. The IUCN concedes that "trophy hunting has a net positive impact in a few areas in Zimbabwe". That net positive impact, however, is a bit of an outlier -- reports indicate that lions are still over-hunted in many areas.

The real solution lies in figuring out how to coexist with lions. For example, the African Wildlife Society's Tarangire Lion Project has provided 105 families with reinforced chain-link fences that protect livestock from predation, mitigating conflicts between lions and farmers.

UK organization Born Free has established a partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service to perform similar work, saying that lion-proof boma demand "continues to grow as more people and their livestock are better protected".

In order for lion conservation efforts to be successful, they must engage stakeholders throughout the ecosystem to restore balance at all levels of the food chain. Although trophy hunting has become a hot-button issue in the wake of Cecil's death, protecting lions involves much more than just eliminating or restricting hunting.

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