By Norma Tsopo
AFRICAN lions are in perilous decline. Its numbers have tumbled by around 180,000 since the 1940s – a 90 percent decline that saw it going extinct in about 26 African countries.
Only the rhinoceros is suffering a worse fate!
Rhino conservation consolation is however enjoying far much better international support.
Opinion is divided over how the King of the Jungle can be saved even among the few who understand their growing plight.
The fearsome apex predators don’t appear – at face value, to require as much protection as they need until one looks at the numbers and distribution.
According to a WWF Living Planet Report 2016 almost 200,000 lions roamed Africa 80 years ago, with approximately 22,000 remaining in the wild according to recent studies.
This is an optimistic estimate, researchers warn. The actual number may be as low as 16,500 but not higher than 30,000. About 3,000 are captive.
Lions were classified as a vulnerable species by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) back in 1996 but that did not stop its population from plummeting by 43 percent over the past 25 years.
Lions are now on the IUCN Red List.
Extinct in North Africa and severely depleted in West and Central Africa the remaining healthy populations are found in the savannah woodland plains of eastern and southern Africa. Lions occupy just 8% of their historical range today, says WildAid.
Extensive habitat loss is likely to continue as Africa’s human population grows from 1.2 billion currently to 2.47 billion in 2050, as estimated by the United Nations, it notes.
Traditionally, the biggest threats to lions has been poaching, trophy hunting, and human-wildlife conflict which is fueled by habitat loss and decrease in their natural prey due to demand for bushmeat forcing them into closer quarters with humans, notes African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
Diseases have also contributed to the rapidly decreasing number of lions as well as other factors, including inbreeding, due to small population groups, causing genetic problems according to African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) a charity affiliated to award-winning prime private game reserve Antelope Park.
More recently, lion bone trade for use in traditional medicine in Asia has been a major driver in the slaughter especially of captive bred lions to feed the insatiable demand from medicine men who try to replace tiger bones.
Conservationist Jammiel Mandima says over 6,000 lion skeletons were exported out of South Africa to Asia in the past decade. “Nearly 70 tonnes, the skeletons were predominantly from captive-bred cats killed in canned-hunting game ranches,” he revealed.
This is what has been tarnishing the image of facilities that allow cub petting and lion walks as animal rights activists and conservationists now view with suspicion that they may supply mature and unattractive lions for the unethical canned hunting.
Antelope Park and its ALERT programme has not escaped accusations that it may be associated with the uncanny slaughter of the troubled big cats despite its pronounced commitment to lion conservation which it has been funding from activities like the lion walks.
Pioneered and perfected by Antelope Park, this fascinating activity was arguably the biggest factor in making Gweru – an unassuming spot in savanna country with no major natural features a tourist magnet.
Being able to come up close to this top predator without incidence an neigh impossibility in the wild has been capturing the imagination of thousands of tourists who have been thronging it for the opportunity.
The biggest damage to its work was a damning February 10, 2008 Sunday Times, UK article – ‘African lion encounters: a bloody con’ that wrongly accused it of being a part of that trade which some animal rights activists still cling to after it said “as many as 59 lion cubs raised at Antelope Park have been sold to big-game-hunting operations to be shot for sport.”
The private game reserve filed a complaint with the newspaper as well as with the Press Complaints Commission leading to the respected newspaper publishing a retraction.
It read: “We accept that the owners of the park never have and never will intentionally sell lions for “canned” hunting…We regret any impression that Antelope Park co-operated in the supply of animals for hunting.” However, this did not seem to have found as much currency as the initial article.
Antelope Park in its response to the allegations had stated that it was itself “completely against canned hunting”.
It said only a “total of 39 lions have been sold by Antelope Park since the current owners acquired the property in 1987. 37 of those lions were sold, in two groups, one in 1999 and the majority in 2002 to a captive centre in South Africa.
There was a pre-condition on the provision of an export permit by the Zimbabwe Wildlife Authority that those lions could not be used for canned hunting.”
These lions, it said, were exported “to be monitored by the relevant wildlife authorities within South Africa to ensure that the provisions of the sale were upheld. Two further lions were sold to a private breeder within Zimbabwe, not associated in any way with hunting, in 2005. No other sales of lions have ever taken place.”
With this rebutted some animal rights activists just don’t feel comfortable with having any wild animal in confinement which Antelope Park lodge manager Dax Jackson says is an ideal they would love to embrace – had the world been a perfect environment.
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t want lions in confinement and ours is not,” Jackson says adding that African lions’ wild populations were falling at an alarming rate and their lion walks have actually been a sideshow they are using to educate people on lions and generate revenue for their conservation efforts.
He revealed that they also supplied the lions at Chinhoyi Caves’ lion enclosure for the same educational purposes.
“We’re a self-funded private wildlife reserve and we get our resources from such activities as the lion-walks,” he said.
With around 150 lions in their three locations—Gweru, Victoria Falls and Zambia, and with each of the big cats that weigh between 125 and 275 kilograms each requiring a quarter of their weight in food weekly, this is an expensive commitment.
Alongside ALERT, he said, they are running an elaborate program to replenish the wild African lion pride by allowing some of their lions to produce wild stock that would not interact with humans for release into the wild.
“We are changing the face of conservation with our ground-breaking conservation program, of which we have a plan in place to release lions back into the wild.
“With over 15 years of extensive research, from our highly experienced, qualified team behind it, we have full confidence that our program will succeed, and can act as a micro-model, to be implemented all across Africa,” Jackson said.
A national park with whom they have a memorandum of understanding through Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) has been their release target. Its existing wild lion population is currently below the park’s carrying capacity.
Through years of self-funded and determined effort, they have developed this well-researched re-introduction program that leading lion experts like Drs Sarel van der Merwe and Pieter Kat believe has a very good chance of success.
Jackson admitted that the noise has been a bit of a distraction to their core interest of the lion release program. And to put an end to the controversy and draw everyone’s attention to their primary conservation work they are putting an end to the lion walks.
“For your information, we will be putting a stop to our lion walks at Antelope Park from May 2019. This is so we can focus on the later stages of our release program,” he said.
But this does not diminish the experience the game reserve has around lions as they will continue to take visitors to witness this fearsome predator during day and night hunt accompaniments from the safety of vehicles in what they call lion encounters.
This is an even more authentic experience with lions in the African savanna!