Many conservationists, animal-lovers and commentators have applauded the efforts of a consortium of wildlife and animal welfare organizations fighting to add the African lion as an endangered species under U.S. law. If successful, the listing would effectively prohibit American hunters from bringing the skins and skulls of lions back to the United States. It would not prevent hunters going on safari to kill a lion but very few will bother if they cannot bring home some reminder to hang on the wall.
Normally, I would be among those applauding. Shooting a big cat in the name of “sport” nauseates me, and I’ve spent a career working to conserve the world’s great cats. I have logged thousands of hours in their magnificent presence. When I watch a male lion grooming his cubs or see a female leopard haul a carcass her own weight up a thorn-tree, I am mystified that some people take pleasure in killing their kind with a high-powered rifle. I’m not especially averse to culling- like all wildlife biologists, my work occasionally necessitates killing animals, such as euthanizing injured wildlife- but it certainly isn’t fun. I simply do not understand what drives a hunter to shoot a creature as magnificent as a lion for a trophy and bragging rights.
Yet I question the effort to list the African lion under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
There is absolutely no doubt that far too many lions are being shot for sport. The process of approving the numbers for hunting (technically, the legal quota that can be exported by hunters) has long been flawed by shoddy science, population estimates little better than guesswork, and relentless lobbying by the hunting industry which is powerful, rich and persuasive. Hunting not only risks taking too many lions but it also disrupts the species’ complicated social structure. Prime male lions - the most sought after trophies - guard their females from pride take-overs by strange males. Take-overs are catastrophic to lionesses because victorious incoming males kill any cubs belonging to the previous pride males; infanticide hastens the females’ return to estrus, giving the new males their own opportunity to sire cubs. It is a natural part of lion society but excessive hunting removes too many males and the essential mantle of protection that allows females to raise a generation of cubs. Between shooting adults and the related loss of cubs, poorly regulated hunting drives lion declines; it is unequivocal.
But that does not mean that all hunting is necessarily bad for lions. Just as strong, empirical science has shown that over-hunting is bad for lions, it also demonstrates that hunting can be sustainable. By setting very conservative quotas and raising age limits to ensure that older male lions are targeted, the worst effects of lion hunting can be mitigated (Packer et.al). There is scant evidence of the hunting industry embracing such measures on its own but the few exceptions- and they do exist- show that hunting does not inevitably come with costs to lion numbers.
Indeed, it even has the potential to benefit lions. In Africa, sport hunting is the main revenue earner for huge tracts of wilderness outside national parks and reserves. Many such areas are too remote, undeveloped or disease-ridden for the average tourist, precluding their use for photographic safaris. Hunting survives because hunters are usually more tolerant of hardship, and they pay extraordinary sums - up to US$125,000 - to shoot a male lion. The business requires only a handful of rifle-toting visitors to prosper which, in principle, helps protect those areas. The presence of hunting provides African governments with the economic argument to leave safari blocks as wilderness. Without it, cattle and crops- and the almost complete loss of wildlife they bring- start looking pretty attractive.
Which is why I’m not happy about the ESA petition. If American hunters, by far the largest market for big game safaris in Africa, can no longer hunt, lions and other wildlife will probably lose out. As unpalatable as it may be, until we find alternative mechanisms to generate the hard cash required to protect wilderness in Africa, hunting remains the most convincing model for many wild areas.
Let me state it again; I think sport hunting big cats is repellent and I would welcome its demise. But my personal distaste for hunting won’t help lions if shutting it down removes protection from African wilderness. Whatever one’s personal feeling, hunting should be regarded as yet another tool in the arsenal of options we must consider if we are to conserve the lion. Without doubt, the entire process that allows hunting big cats in Africa needs a complete overhaul to purge its widespread excesses and enforce far stricter limits on which lions can be hunted and how many. That would force hunters to produce the conservation benefits of which they constantly boast but only rarely produce. That- rather than the nuclear option of eliminating hunting- should be our goal.
Read the Guardian’s “African lions under threat from a growing predator: the American hunter” with quotes from Dr. Luke Hunter.
Learn what Panthera is doing to conserve Africa’s lions through “Project Leonardo”
In April of 2009, Panthera and our partners at the Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) collared the fourth snow leopard in our Mongolia-based study – the first ever, long-term comprehensive study of the species. As Orjan Johansson, the Swedish Ph.D. student who leads the study, cautiously approached and prepared to sedate the 2-year old, 75 pound snow leopard, it rolled onto its back with all four paws in the air like a playful house cat. From that point forward this snow leopard, now named Shonkor (which means ‘falcon’ in Mongolian), became a favorite of Orjan’s as he tracked the snow leopard by GPS and caught glimpses of him in camera trap photos.
Recently, however, Shonkor came close to becoming a casualty of livestock-predator conflict – a common fate of snow leopards that live in regions dominated by pastoralists. Now a full grown male, Shonkor does a lot of exploring. In mid-January he spent several hours near a herder’s home, perhaps tempted by the yard filled with resting goats, but moved on. A month later he returned to this site, but this time he stayed, and helped himself to 13 goats in a matter of hours.
Fortunately, the owner of these goats was aware of the Panthera-SLT study and contacted our camp manager, who relayed details about this event to the Snow Leopard Trust office in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. From there, details about this situation were sent on to project staff in Sweden, India and the U.S. where scientists intently monitored the GPS data emitting from Shonkor’s collar. Still hungry, Shonkor unfortunately showed no sign of leaving his free meals, and each evening he came to feed on the carcasses of goats that our field staff had not managed to retrieve. By dawn he was resting a mile or so away.
For a week our field team did their best to cajole Shonkor away from herder’s home using bright lights and horns, one time driving within 10 feet of the resting cat, who met this challenge with a low growl and seeming indifference. Ideas to remove Shonkor from this area came in from around the globe, including pepper spray, torches, and sirens, but getting those items to the Gobi Desert – one of the most remote regions in the world – would require time that we didn’t have.
Finally, the team made an intensive effort to remove any uneaten meat, and on foot were able to drive Shonkor away from this area. A collective sigh of relief came when GPS data showed Shonkor moving away from the village and back into the core of his range. Just to be safe, however, two of the joint Panthera-SLT project staff, Miji and Sumbee, spent the night in a van next to the corral in case Shonkor decided to wander back to the village.
While Shonkor was lucky in this instance, it is inevitable that he will encounter many more livestock in his daily travels, and unfortunately not all pastoralists will be as sympathetic to predators attacking their livestock, and their livelihoods, in the future.
This situation is a prime example of the frequent human-snow leopard conflicts that Panthera is helping to mitigate through our Snow Leopard Program, led by Dr. Tom McCarthy. Panthera is working in snow leopard range countries throughout Asia, on such activities as monitoring snow leopard populations’ movements and behaviors, training local communities how to protect their livestock by building predator-proof corrals, and partnering with governments to create and implement National Snow Leopard Action Plans. By doing so, Panthera is establishing itself as one of the leading snow leopard conservation organizations to which local communities sharing their homes with snow leopards can turn to during times of human-snow leopard conflict.
Congratulations to Panthera Media Director, Steve Winter, who was recently awarded the Global Vision Award from Pictures of the Year International (POYi) for his collection of 40 photos from Kaziranga National Park in Assam, India.
This winning collection of images captures the range of issues that wildlife face - from poaching to human-wildlife conflict - in Kaziranga, home to approximately 120-140 wild tigers. Among the captivating images are a tiger staring down the camera amidst the tall grass, curious one-horned Indian rhinos and blindfolded poachers, apprehended for targeting rhinos for their horns, and tigers for their body parts, on their way to interrogation at the park’s ranger station. Photos like these help raise awareness and shine the spotlight on issues facing tigers and other wildlife around the world.
Click here to read a National Geographic article about Kaziranga National Park.
Upcoming Event: A print and digital exhibition of Steve’s photos and other selected photojournalism from 2010 will be on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. from April to October 2011. Learn more about the Newseum exhibition.
Whether they are based in Mongolia, Indonesia, the Grand Tetons of the U.S., South Africa, or Brazil, Panthera’s wild cat scientists are no strangers to adversity in the field. Our staff battle temperatures reaching highs of 120°F and lows of -58°F, rain and sand storms, flooding, illnesses including malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and parasites, swarms of mosquitoes, and threats from poachers - all for the love of big cats.
While out on a field survey in the Brazilian state of Mato Grasso do Sul, Panthera’s Jaguar-Cattle Conflict Coordinator, Dr. Rafael Hoogesteijn, had his own close call with a large group of white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari), which serves as a major prey species for the jaguar across most of its range. In the midst of the dry season, Rafael was walking down the waterless riverbed, looking for jaguar sign – tracks, feces, tree scrapings, or leftover kills – when he startled a herd of at least 50 to 60 peccaries. As Rafael stood still, Rafael was approached by 4 males (they are known for their poor eye sight), where they came within 4 meters, or about 13 feet, from where he stood, before scenting Rafael and then they ran around him.
See Rafael’s encounter with a group of white lipped peccaries in the Brazilian Pantanal. Listen to their unique ‘clapping’ noise, which they use as a defense mechanism against perceived threats.
Rafael films, from the river, a very large pack of white-lipped peccaries, who are on the move, grazing through the Pantanal.
While peccaries have been known to be aggressive toward hunters and their hunting dogs, the group kept calm (even with their young nearby), but they did react to Rafael’s presence. They bristled the hair on their razor-backs, and rapidly clapped their jaws and tusks together, to make their distinctive clattering noise, warning this potential human predator to stay away. Admittedly scared, Rafael shared that such a close encounter was “intense,” but exciting.
White-lipped peccaries are important for the ecology of neotropical humid forests. They congregate in large herds, sometimes as many as a hundred or more, and cover large distances, and their herding behavior allows them to harvest vast quantities of palm nuts. This herding behavior keeps them together while being hunted – but also makes them an easy target for hunters resulting in being overhunted. Herds of peccaries are often shot or clubbed while crossing rivers, and hunting dogs are used to locate peccaries that seek refuge in holes, large tree roots and salt licks.
Peccaries are still common in many areas of the Pantanal, even though they are highly sought after by local hunters in other parts of Latin America for their meat. Fresh, salted and smoked peccary meat is sold or traded in the region. In the past, thousands of hides were traded for the leather industry in South America. In addition to their vulnerability to hunting, white-lipped peccaries are dependent on “climax habitat” meaning they prefer mature old growth forest. They generally do not survive in fragmented habitats, and unlike their collared peccary relatives, they are more sensitive to deforestation.
Unfortunately, one of the major threats facing jaguars today is the overhunting of prey species, like peccaries, by people. This hunting reduces the jaguar’s natural food source, forcing them to turn to cattle, sheep and goats. This often fuels human-jaguar conflict, and can lead to the killing of jaguars by ranchers.
For this reason, Panthera’s team of jaguar scientists are working on the ground, every day, to mitigate human-jaguar (and other cat) conflicts by training ranchers how to build corrals that effectively protect their livestock, helping to enforce sustainable hunting practices of jaguar prey, and working with local and national governments to protect jaguar habitat.
Watch a video filmed just weeks ago showing Rafael battling mosquitoes in the Brazilian Pantanal.
Thank you to everyone who voted on the four name choices, which were very hard to narrow down from over the 300 excellent names submitted! We are happy to announce that the first female jaguar to be collared by Panthera in the Pantanal, is named “Noca” – winning with 47.2% of the vote. Noca, pronounced "Nossa" is a play on the word “onca” which is Portuguese for jaguar, as well as the scientific species name for the jaguar – “Panthera onca”. We look forward to following her movements and providing updates, like the one below, to all of her fans. You helped name her, now help us save her.
In the past few weeks, Noca, the newly named female jaguar, has restricted her movements to an area north of our central research station in the Pantanal. The rising waters of the Pantanal rainy season (which can flood as high as 8 meters!) have likely constricted her movements to these areas where there is enough dry ground that she can find prey, but not have to travel too far through water, where she would use up precious energy.
This map shows the jaguar is staying close, and revisiting a specific area, most likely a site where she is feeding off of a caiman or a white-lipped peccary.
Learn more about Panthera's Pantanal Jaguar Project.
Why do we use GPS collars and how they operate?. Click Here to Learn More.
In case you missed it, check out the interview with Panthera President and CEO, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, by CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, for the Human Factor program – a television and online series that reports on how people confront & overcome medical adversities.
Read the CNN blog post by Dr. Rabinowitz to learn how animals helped him overcome a debilitating stutter & how he now uses Panthera as a voice to protect the world's wild cats.
Watch Dr. Rabinowitz’s interview on The Colbert Report to learn how he overcame his stutter by talking to animals.
Several weeks ago, Panthera's Web and Communications Coordinator, Susie Weller, earned her Panthera stripes by running the New Orleans Rock 'n' Roll half marathon. Adorned in tiger stripes, Susie ran the race with four tiger-striped friends to help raise awareness of the plight of tigers, and Panthera’s efforts to save them. The 'running tigresses' were helped through the 13+ mile race with encouragement and “Grrrrr’s” from fellow runners and onlookers.
Help Panthera Save Tigers
The endangered tiger, now numbering fewer than 3,200, is in desperate need of your help. Support Panthera’s tiger and other global wild cat conservation programs by making a donation to Panthera.
Want to do more? Email your friends and family and post a message on Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness about the fragile state of the world’s wild tigers and encourage others to support Panthera’s conservation initiatives.
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View our upcoming events here: http://www.panthera.org/events
Read our New Snow Leopard Brochure