August 8, 2015
Last week my family and I traveled to one of the jewels of Zambia’s National Park system – South Luangwa. What an amazing place. In the span of a few short days we saw lions and leopards and elephants and really everything save rhinos and wild dogs — the last my younger son’s favorite, guaranteeing another trip to the park in the near future.
In addition to seeing the park and its animals we also met with the park officials, NGOs, community leaders and lodge owners committed to conserving the park and its precious wildlife. And in that regard, the trip had its sobering moments.
The fate of Luangwa’s rhinos is perhaps instructive. Once numerous, they were hunted to extinction in the 1980’s for their horns, which some people believe are good for their libidos.
One of the arguments many hunters make is that hunting is conservation. We have certainly heard that in abundance since the killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe last month. The fate of Zambia’s rhinos tells a different story. When hunting is neither ethical not sustainable it is really no different than poaching and puts at risk the survival of a species.
Often as not, the death of a male lion also leads to the death of its male cubs. Moreover, every male that’s killed reduces the gene diversity of the surviving lions and – as we saw in Zimbabwe – trophy hunters don’t want just any lion – they want the most dominant males. The result is a weakening of the ability of the lions as a whole to ward off disease.
Moreover, lions and leopards are not easy to count – especially by air. The best way is probably by statistical sampling and the use of drones with heat imaging capability. With those capabilities, which have yet to be used, we can better estimate the number of lions left in Zambia. Without a reliable estimate, it is courting disaster to reinstate the hunting of big cats – or elephants for that matter, whose populations are also declining as I noted a few months ago in an article about a trip to Kafue National Park.
What happens to Zambia’s tourism industry, already the source of so many jobs and with so much potential to drive future growth, if the big cats or elephants go the way of Zambia’s rhinos?
Hunting can be a part of Zambia’s tourism industry going forward but it is at best a small part. The community leaders whom I met, many former poachers, told me in no uncertain terms that hunting has done nothing for their communities.
Photographic safaris on the other hand are the backbone of Zambia’s tourism industry. At one point my family and I came across two young male lions basking in the late afternoon sun. This is what the tourists come for and within minutes there were a dozen vehicles and a hundred tourists observing and photographing these magnificent animals. At hundreds of dollars a night, it doesn’t take much to figure out the economic value of Zambia’s lions. Over the course of their lives they are worth millions of dollars in tourism revenue.
By contrast, they are worth exactly $4500 to the Zambian Government. That’s the price of a license to kill a lion, which the Government means to allow once more in 2016, when two lions per concession (and there are 22 concessions) are to be killed. That’s 44 lions, most of whom will be young males like the two we saw on the banks of the Luangwa River.
The bulk of the money made for the killing of a lion, or any other of Zambia’s wildlife, accrues to the safari operator. They will make tens of thousands of dollars from the “hunt,” which is often nothing more than luring a lion with bait so the American tourist (and yes, sadly, the bulk of these trophy hunters are American) can kill it.
At a minimum, couldn’t the Zambian Government auction off the licenses? I would guess that the market value for such a license is worth a lot more than $4500 – and if that money is used transparently to further wildlife conservation, then hunting would be contributing to the future of Zambia’s tourism industry. And also at a minimum, couldn’t the Zambian Government insist on ethical hunting and an end to baiting? Baiting is not sport and requires no skill – it’s just slaughter.
August 10 was World Lion Day and August 12 is World Elephant Day. I would ask our Facebook friends to use these days to lobby their elected officials to extend the ban on big cat hunting – and on the hunting of elephants as well. Zambia is one of the few places left where African wildlife can roam free. Let’s work together to keep it that way so that future generations can also admire the majesty of Zambia’s wildlife.