Their Deeply Familiar Shape: on lions and us

At less than 40,000 individuals strewn throughout a perilous and patchy kingdom, the African lion graces only a fraction of the world it once patrolled, endangered overall and critically so within certain geographical areas and countries. Exemplifying the modern fate of charismatic carnivorous creatures, each at the apex of their ecosystems and in perpetual, inevitable conflict with whatever human societies they are neighbour to, the lions of the African continent know all too well the sudden rise of an inter-continental super predator, appearing in the settling dust kicked up by a primate previously running for its life. From most powerful predator to adversarial equal, from mystery, muse, and idol to trophy, prey, and pest, our minds have interpreted their deeply familiar shape in a multitude of different ways. Competing creatures both in awe and fear of the tremendous power of the other. It may be an ancient conflict, but it is a conflict long-since won, and a conflict that is now very nearly finished.

There exists a plethora of current threats facing lions that arise from our interaction and conflict with them: unsustainable sport hunting, the bushmeat trade and other poaching, retaliatory killings and ceremonial hunts, the loss of prey and the loss of habitat. One common thread through much of this is the danger that lions still pose to human beings, whether killing of the cats manifests due to present or future safety concerns, or due to the adrenaline and thrill of hunting another predator. Though it certainly can be unjust, and it certainly can be unhelpful, in large part much of the retaliatory killing of dangerous wildlife must be accepted as contextually reasonable, even if we cannot comprehend the attitude that living in primal fear of and frustration at them generates in individuals and in communities, and even if we ultimately seek to end that killing. Big cats, particularly tigers, leopards, and the lions that this is focused on, have been involved, historically and presently, in the most famous instances and accounts of humans being killed by carnivores, and have always found trouble as a result of their taking of domestic animals.

While description and discussion of any one of the threats facing lions, and of any one of the many conservation approaches addressing them, could fill, and have filled, near-countless pages by themselves, this will touch briefly on all these threats and their proposed solutions throughout and to varying degrees, in order to get at a deeper question: what does our relationship with lions need to become, if this ancient conflict is to come to dusk in such a way that an early morning air that’s charged with the roaring of the dawn chorus still greets the sunrise?

For sale! For security!
For sport! For honour!

As we moved from hunter-gather prey, to settled agricultural and industrial societies, our control response in the face of damage caused by dangerous animals has changed. Scarecrows, poison, traps, and hunts were common and remain so, though modern society has, in many places, increased the tolerance of wildlife damage as it has reduced the impact of it, as well as often reducing or removing the local existence of the wildlife that caused it. As a human activity, killing lions has more years behind it than does growing crops, and it makes up the most central part of discussion regarding lion conservation today, generally taking three forms: retaliatory, sport and ceremonial, and poaching.

In the West, the most visible of these is sport or trophy hunting of lions, and the debate over the place that the practice has in causing lions further crisis or contributing to their conservation, or both, has raged on. Leaving aside for another time the philosophical, ethical discussion, the practical arguments for and against can be summarised.

Trophy hunting of lions helps conserve their species: each hunt brings in vast amounts of money just from one hunter looking for a single lion – money which can be used for both nature conservation and development of local, rural areas; hunters are satisfied with hunts in areas that are unsuitable for photographic tourism, and so, were there no hunting, there would be no incentive to keep these areas preserved, and they would be built or farmed upon, destroying the ecosystem; with guidelines that say only a male of five years or older can be taken, hunters are only taking lions that have played their role in reproduction, and so are not greatly disrupting gene flow or social systems.

Countering these, it is argued: the money generated from hunting rarely reaches any of the people or wildlife that it claims to be helping, due to the legal operating of the companies as well as the illegal corruption, and when it does, the impact is negligible; hunters all too often encroach on protected areas and areas very suitable for other tourism, thus taking lions from areas where the hunting-as-incentive argument fails; male lions do not reach their prime until around seven or eight years of age – males spend a few years in exile in coalitions after leaving the natal pride, so to take males of five or six is to destroy young males and the pride structure that they hold in place, leaving their cubs to be killed and replaced by genetically inferior males who were not able to take-over the pride naturally.

The most reasonable consensus seems to be that, while some arguments for trophy hunting as conservation could hold weight, there needs to be much reform and legislation to ensure that it is sustainable, and where that is lacking the practice is decidedly harmful. Despite the attention it gets, however, it is not the most fatal of all the killing.

When lions come across cattle, they are presented with a prey that has had its predator-response impulses dulled by domestication. Throughout Africa, the problem of lions killing domestic animals, and the problem of resulting entrenched negative perceptions of the cats, and of retaliation in the shape of hunting or of baiting and poisoning of lions, is widespread. To exacerbate things, in many cases the local people and communities engaging in this retaliatory killing also maintain traditions that involve lion-killing for honour or for rite of passage, regardless of this conflict. Some communities are much more willing to kill lions than to improve protective measures or practices surrounding their livestock, and compensation oft begets complacency that, too, does not inspire improved practices.

Yet more killing, on top of all this, comes in the form of poaching for the meat and the bones of lions, particularly driven by a demand from Asia for the parts of various African animals. Having focused on the local big cats, tigers, to the point of decimation, traditional Chinese Medicine began replacing tiger bones with the bones of African lions – while this seemed, at first, to be limited to a controversial yet sustainable off-take related to non-wild lions bred for hunting, it threatens the diminishing wild population. While it, as with trophy hunting, is less of a threat to lion numbers than the retaliatory killings discussed above, the poaching of lions appears to be a threat that is growing and becoming extensive, compounding the myriad ways in which a lion today may die.

Lion attacks on livestock, as well as on people themselves, and the fatal response it engenders, as well as the increasing prevalence and ease of poaching, are brought about by a fundamental issue within all of this: prey and habitat depletion.

Nothing beside remains

No kingdom lasts; no domain remains intact. The African land that lions are free to range upon and use has been vastly reduced, and continues to diminish. Historically, lions were found across the majority of the continent, besides certain areas of equatorial forest and the Sahara, yet now occupy less than a quarter of their previous range, having lost more than 75% of their habitat in the past century and finding themselves now restricted mostly to protected areas. Only 25% of savannah area in Africa contains free-ranging lions, and habitats throughout this are fragmented.

The expansion of Africa’s human population has manifested in the spread of built-up areas, as well as the conversion of swathes of land to agriculture and pastoralism. Not only is this breaking apart and decreasing the space available to lions, it is doing so for their prey, too. Throughout the world, the large and the largest herbivores are in massive decline, and this has many knock-on ecological effects, including on the primary food supply of many of the world’s carnivores. With lions, it is a prominent problem – the overhunting of large herbivores in West Africa has caused the lions of the region to become critically endangered, and the lack of wild prey leads to increasing instances of preying on livestock, and the resulting retaliatory killing discussed above.

Lacking prey and lacking space, the pressure mounts on what remains of tolerance.

Conflict or coexistence?

The human population of Africa is estimated to increase fourfold over the next 90 years, meaning that the already high urgency needed for tackling the decline of lion populations will only increase. Some of the solutions to the above contemporary conflicts have been alluded to during the course of describing the threats themselves, and there are many varied paths being tried and taken along this so staggeringly unusual and uniquely human of endeavours: to deliberately keep alive the competition. Yet in conservation itself new conflicts can emerge, and even a group dedicated to the same goal can clash and fight, while the goal slips out of reach behind them.

Sport hunting, particularly of lions, is highly divisive, and finds itself proclaimed as an effective and invaluable conservation measure, as an immediate, incorrigible, and massive threat to the persistence of lions in Africa, and as a flawed and corrupt, yet needed once improved, part of the lion conservation toolkit. When discussing the retaliatory and traditional killing of lions above, there was mentioned the practice of compensation to pastoral Africans of various tribes and nationalities in the wake of their livestock being killed by predators, to reduce the chances of killing. This issue of predation on what is for many their livelihood is often the cause of opposition to many conservation measures. A widespread response to this has been to set-up compensation schemes for those who have had their livestock killed by predators, to redress this problem born of difference in perspective toward lions between conservationists and those that fund them, and farmers and pastoralists. While this has some proven positive effect, and has resulted in less retaliation and less resentment, it has also tended to cause carelessness in livestock practice, due to the knowledge of eventual compensation, and comes from a very superficial, shallow understanding of the situation that creates this scheme that does not properly address the problem. While compensation is certainly better than mere condemnation of or legal enforcement against those who kill lions, it has been found that a much more involved and nuanced understanding into the perception of lions and the relationships with them, and into the culture and society of those affected by the cats, leads to conservation measures far more deeply effective at reducing lion killing and changing attitudes. Social learning and conservation social science, as well as a breadth of interdisciplinary research, are all vital, more than simply for complementing the natural science and narrow-focused implementation of conservation projects and measures.

Both the clash over sport hunting and the clash between those who value lions highly and those who understandably fail to see the benefit of their presence are good examples of how conservation can be operating at multiple and differing scales, each different to that of other parties. These different parties can and do all fall variously into the trap of regarding their interests, ideas, and policies as being most likely to result in successful conservation, and the closer the species in question gets to extinction, the higher the stakes, the more passionate the parties, the more heightened the argument. Underlying all that has been discussed so far, one of the most important questions for lion conservation is over whether our aim should be to remain in somewhat close but better contact, or to divide ourselves off from their world, and to physically separate their lives from ours.

There is much debate, research, and support and detraction surrounding the idea of fenced protected areas (hereafter ‘FPAs’) as conservation for lions and their prey. An undertaking found throughout wildlife and nature conservation, FPAs are well-intentioned attempts to reduce the impact of humans and to preserve ecosystems, creating physical separation where there was contact, and thus minimising conflict. With lions, FPAs have been shown to benefit populations, particularly in allowing for high densities. This, however, does appear to be heavily contingent on the quality of management, and on the motivation and resources for conservation, and its enforcement, behind it.

Though an understandable measure as reaction to a declining species or ecosystem, with positive aspects shown in the short, and perhaps medium, term, the appropriateness of FPAs is in question, and their negative consequences have also been shown. FPAs deeply change ecosystems, affecting their innate systems, including migration routes and patterns, genetic make-up, and species interaction, both within a species and between different ones. It can alter the balance of a predator-prey relationship in a manner far too fast for natural selection to realign, when predators learn to chase prey toward and into areas of fencing, and it can prevent the passage and temporary presence of species crucial to an ecosystem, yet that are not permanent, year-round features of it. On top of this, the fencing provides vast supply of material for wire snares for poaching, and FPAs can negatively affect nomadic and/or pastoral people, just as local to and part of the ecosystem, and policies implementing FPAs can thus generate hostility to conservation.

One defence of FPAs as a valuable tool within a suite of others for the conservation of the African lion, in response to the criticism that, though there may be high densities of lions within FPAs, there are higher numbers outside them, is that there may be higher numbers outside protected areas, but these lions are not better conserved than those within. Having weaved through the various threats to the future existence of the African lion, and through the discussion and conservation practice centred on addressing those threats and that future, there, in that quote, is the rub. What does it mean to conserve lions?

If conservation is little more than preservation, then it is something unnatural, and not a lasting solution to creating a world in which we do not dominate in the way that we could. The wild of the past was never destined to be the wild of the future, with or without our impact and our influence, and to expect future generations of humans to be able to look out at the same African savannah as we do now is to hope, not for the continued existence of the wild, but for the creation of a vast, outdoor museum, a living photograph surrounded by a protective wall to keep from being damaged as the world around it moves swiftly on. To us, and still even if our individual lifespan were a thousand years, the stars in the night sky are permanent, unchanging, perfectly conserved as they once were at their brightest, preserved the wondrous way in which we have always known them to be. Yet, even as we look at them they are dying, or already dead. The world is changed and the world is changing, and the lion must continue changing too. We are not the same as we once were, and we will not be the way we are now for long – to fence lions in is to expect the opposite of them, to expect that they stay the way that we know them. The behaviours, societies, and systems of lions, and of all wildlife and of their environments, need to continue to evolve, change, and to develop alongside us and our communities, societies, and civilisations, otherwise, when the doors of these protected areas are eventually being knocked upon, the preserved systems within will not survive in the new and fully formed situation it has been shielded from, and is now inevitably exposed to. Furthermore, if they are fenced in and fenced off, it might become easier for future generations to see lions as surplus, as unnecessary, and as not a part of the real and human world. The question of why we should keep upkeeping these protected conservation areas will become harder to answer. If our relationship evolves, and we come to coexist, then perhaps people will be less inclined to feeling that we would not really miss the big cats if they disappeared forever. We need to clash now so that we can coincide, before we clash in a way that ends this ancient conflict once and for all.

One of the central messages of conservation is that we cannot continue to be the way we have been. As true as this is, the other half of that message ought be that neither can the wildlife we wish to be better guardians and contemporaries of. It might be that we can conserve lions as we know them, with FPAs and other conservation tactics, for the rest of this century and into the next. But if the focus is not coexistence, wildlife corridors over FPAs, and cohabitation, even as we should hope to maintain some areas of large and intact wilderness, then the lion will lose the chance to adapt and to transform, and eventually find it too late to do so. For all the variations on the hunting and the killing, and for all the loss of intact areas that lions have so far been evolved and accustomed to, the greatest threat to the continued existence of the African lion is our inability to live with each other. It is a lesson that won’t be learnt through physical separation, nor through this idea that conservation must be preservation. In Tanzania, some human communities have found and had sustained coexistence with lions in at least one societal context, and the approach that was built from that, Lion Guardians, has seen transformative progress in lion conservation. This might not produce the high population density found within FPAs, and it may be far more difficult to sell the idea of living alongside lions than the idea of fencing them off and away, but if lion conservation were to focus further beyond the sun-reddened horizon than merely the end of the current century, then the understandable desperation for whatever can be done to prevent further decline in lion numbers would surely give way to the understanding that it is only through allowing the risk of conflict to provide the possibility for reorganisation and change that our relationship with lions and their relationship with us can transform and continue in a way that will last.


Image credit: Johan Swanepoel, fineartamerica – Lioness Portrait Photograph

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