The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
Panthera leo, the lion, Africa’s most iconic symbol, is dwindling in numbers at an alarming rate. In the 1970s there were over 200,000 lions on the African continent, today there are estimated to be 20,000-30,000 remaining. That is an 80-90 percent decline in the past four decades. 26 countries have already seen their lion populations go extinct, and Kenya and Uganda expect to see their lions populations go extinct as well within the next 10 years. Only seven countries currently have viable lion populations of 1,000 or more individuals.
Why has this happened?
1. Human population growth. As human populations increase at a rapid rate they expand into the lion’s natural habitat, reducing their historical range of land, which also reduces the habitat of the lion’s natural prey species.
2. Retaliatory Killing. Along with human population growth comes the need for more livestock to feed that growth, and the land to raise it on. Because a lion’s territory and traditional food sources have been greatly reduced, they attack livestock (an admittedly easy to kill prey species). In retaliation, lions are often speared, shot, and poisoned by humans.
3. Trophy Hunting. The lion is one of the most coveted trophies for hunters, especially the male lion. Besides reducing the overall lion population for “sport,” the large number of males killed reduces the ability of the species to reproduce.
4. Illegal lion hunting. Lions are being poached as part of an ever-increasing demand for lion bones, used in traditional Chinese medicines and lion bone wine. There is a large and active black market trade and, unfortunately, in countries of extreme poverty and corruption often it’s the people hired to protect wildlife that are involved in illegal poaching.
While I can muster some sympathy for the local, impoverished subsistence farmer whose cattle has been attacked by lions, hunting lions as trophies – even if it’s done legally – is unconscionable. In the past decade, 5,663 lions have been killed for trophy hunting alone. That’s 25 percent of the current population. Sixty-four percent of these trophies were imported into the United States, and twice as many were imported into the US in 2008 compared to 1999. This is a growing problem despite all the research that shows the lion is facing extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the lion as “vulnerable” – which means the species is considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.
The “vulnerable” listing is actually not as urgent as it sounds when you look at the range of IUCN ratings, and there are organizations working to change the status of the lion. Because the majority of lion trophies come into the US, there is also an effort to list lions as an endangered species under the US Endangered Species Act. This would make it illegal to import lion trophies or any lion parts into the US, and thus hopefully reduce the incentive to hunt lions. You can sign the petition here.
Hunting is certainly not the only problem lions face, but the deaths caused by legal hunting could be eliminated through legislation. There is no reason anybody needs a lion head mounted on their wall. Hunters attempt to justify what they do by saying that hunting brings in money to local communities, that it helps prevent harm to their livestock, and that therefore they are acting as good samaritans, but in the end when looked at closely it is only empty rhetoric used to justify senseless killing. There are other, more viable, solutions.
Without conservation efforts it is estimated that all natural lion populations could be gone in as little as 20 years. In addition to scientific research and creating local, cooperative, long-term strategies for development and conservation, the education and involvement of local communities living adjacent to lions is critical so they have a vested interest in saving wildlife. If this doesn’t happen, no animal species has any hope of survival in the decades to come.