“Report on Lion Conservation..” WildCRU

Stephen Wiggins Studies 8 Comments


Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) “Report on Lion Conservation with Particular Respect to the Issue of Trophy Hunting,” (the “Report”), Professor David Macdonald (Director of WildCRU) et al., dated 28 November 2016

Download – Report on lion conservation, David Macdonald

Download – Report on lion conservation, Appendices, David Macdonald

Download – IWB Letter to DEFRA, “The United Kingdom’s Importation of Lion Hunting Trophies,” 29 December 2016

The Report provides reference material and plenty of ‘food for thought’ (but is controversial, because it espouses the same tired theory of hunting contributing to conservation if ‘well-regulated etc…..’). The Report was prepared for guidance to the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in response to a request to assist DEFRA in its decision making regarding hunting trophy importation.

Whilst highlighting the downfalls clearly evident in poorly managed and poorly regulated lion trophy hunting, the Report recommends significant reform to eradicate bad practices:

Jeffrey Flocken, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has said, that the Report “is absolutely correct that we need better vetting of trophy hunting operations, better science, and much more transparency in this debate.”

Habitat Protection is Key

The Report postulates that in the absence of other credible/universally applicable alternatives to secure habitat (other than blocks of key habitat being leased for hunting), then ‘well-manged’ lion trophy hunting is still advocated as the ‘best’ approach to secure habitat.

The concern is, can the hunting industry (with all its acknowledged failings) be turned around in time to support the Report’s theory that hunting is the current best hope for financing habitat protection? How can pressure be applied to manoeuvre the whole trophy hunting industry towards exemplary standards and deliver the promised theory? Does the hunting industry’s overall, historical track-record give reassurance (‘faith’) that exemplary adherence to required standards will ensue?

For example, the Report recommends (at Para 3.2) age based restrictions on trophy lions “harvested,” a concept first promoted from Whitman et al. in 2004 – over a decade ago. But, here we are still seeing the Report proposing (‘faith’) the hunting industry can reform, adopting and implementing such recommendations as an exemplary standard across all of its ‘theatre’ of activity. Regardless, this age based “harvesting” recommendation is not without its risks. The feasibility of determining any lion’s age from distance, in the field is incredibly unreliable, particularly the ‘recommended’ method to hunters and their guides of using a lion’s nose colouration as a key indicator of age (Whitman and Packer, 2007). Aging error in the field using a target lion’s nose pigmentation as the key indicator is a problem – how ‘reliable’ or motivated will any hunter be to age their target lion accurately, when interpreting the key lion age indicator is subjective and unreliable?  – How Can ‘We’ Save the African lion, Panthera leo?“ para 11.5, IWB, 5 January 2016

Of course, hunting trophy importation only being sanctioned based upon proven species’ conservation benefits (as suggested in the Report’s recommendations to DEFRA) is key to ‘force’ the hunting industry to mend it ways and keep its business model alive.

Habitat protection is of course key to establish the ‘hope’ that wildlife conservation has a potential foothold in which to flourish. In the absence of that foothold, then there is pressure for habitat to be turned over for alternative use such as agriculture, which will no doubt increase the risk of human/wildlife conflict (cited as a much greater threat than trophy hunting to lion conservation). The argument is further extended that in the absence of hunting’s ‘valuation’ of lions, local communities that have to ‘deal’ with lions (and other wildlife) on a daily basis, are likely as a whole to willingly eliminate lions without hesitation in preference to their own communities’ overriding needs.

Note: Communities benefit very little from hunting income and still tolerate wildlife, so the suggestion lions/wildlife  will be eradicated by communities solely because of the absence of hunting income trickle down seems a bit far fetched – “The income generated to local communities from hunting areas is minimal, estimated at less than 3% of total hunting income per annum, or equating to £0.4 ($0.62 USD)/per annum per ‘local community’ person (or less)” – How Can ‘We’ Save the African lion, Panthera leo?“ IWB, 5 January 2016

The point I take from this is that ‘acceptability’ of financing of habitat to protect a foothold for lions (and wildlife in general) is a question of the financing source:

  • Hunting achieves this through pandering to a willingness of some to pay to kill lions. In the absence of credible alternatives in some cases, this is advocated by the Report as the ‘best bad option.’ The hunter’s killing is a (morally and ethically repellent for many, including myself) by-product. The income generated and habitat security is the principal claim advocates of hunting theory suggest excuses the pre-requisite killing of ‘some to save the many’ argument;
  • Of course, other options do exist for leasing hunting blocks, for photographic tourism for example. But this is not an option in inappropriate locations – The Report (page 43) highlights a case study of Botswana (with its hunting ban since 2014), where “there has been minimal uptake of hunting blocks for photographic tourism” putting key wildlife corridors under threat (currently resisted). Botswana has adopted a policy advocating ‘photographic tourism’ since banning all hunting in country in 2014. But the Report’s case study further contends that in Botswana there is “hardening negative attitudes toward wildlife since the [2014 hunting] ban was implemented.” So the implied result is that without further support wildlife will be under internal threat, thus Botswana has the potential to succumb to pressure to return habitats in key wildlife corridors (not protected in the interim by other means), to the ‘protective’ cloak of hunting.

Well, Botswana’s tourism figures have already surpassed 2 million in 2016, so clearly there is demand within Botswana for non-consumptive tourism (and long may it continue).

The Report goes on to speculate (Para 5.1) that even if lion hunting is considered the ‘best bad option’ for habitat security, public opinion (based upon a notion of ‘emotionally driven ethics’ or otherwise) is increasingly averse to the on-going social acceptability of lion/wildlife trophy hunting (regardless of any faith in its potential adherence to regulatory mandates etc.). If there is blame for that pervasive social perception, then I would suggest hunting itself and its historical lack of pro-active adherence to stipulations likely to enhance species’ conservation is key (hence the reforms specified in the Report are needed) – trophy hunting has demonstrated a devotion to short term exploitation of leniency/complicity to maximise profiteering behind a cloak of deceit for far too long.

I would suggest the Report steers clear to some extent of material that highlights trophy hunting’s casual and ready acceptance of wrongdoing. For example, in regard to Zimbabwe, the Report (page 30 – 31) over-looks the acknowledged illegal killing of Cecil and no resulting prosecutions of anyone involved. How is that possibly good for acceptable hunting regulation, plus recent evidence (“The great emptiness is upon us” – Oxpeckers, 7 November 2016) of lions still being baited out of the protection of Hwange National Park to be “harvested” for hunting trophies. Instead the Report happily concludes “…there is little evidence that trophy hunting is negatively affecting Zimbabwe’s lion population at a national scale” without any reference to clear wrong-doing in country and tacit acceptance of such.

WildCRU has previously highlighted the problem at Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe – “69 out of 100 males were estimated to have died from age-independent causes in Hwange, and will continue to do so if estimated death rates remain unchanged. This means these males do not die of old age. The most likely cause of death is to be killed by trophy hunters or local farmers protecting their herds” – Wild CRU, “David Macdonald explains that Cecil’s death was part of a much wider story,” Dr Andrew Loveridge, Professor David Macdonald and Dr Julia Barthold, 23 February 2016. So, does the above statement sound like trophy hunters are helping lion conservation in Hwange, Zimbabwe? – Source: Wild CRU

In addition…….”From such information, Macdonald should surely know that lion trophy hunting is costly to lions” – “for example, just one of his published papers on lions in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe states that 72% of mortality of “tagged” lions in his protected national park study area was attributable to trophy hunting” – Source: LionAid, 7 December 2016

Also see Brent Stapelkamp’s  (WildCRU project in Hwange) insightful comments given at Appendix I below – Is trophy hunting of key pride members a catalyst driving surviving pride members into human/wildlife conflict, which suggests that the threat posed by trophy hunting in isolation is clearly underestimated in the Report (and the data available to WildCRU that proves that link has been intentionally over-looked perhaps)?

Captive Lion Breeding and Hunting

The Report also includes reference to captive lion hunting and breeding, but the Report concludes (page 10) that with regard to captive lions, “these lions are generally neither considered as wild or contributing to lion conservation.”

However, the Report (page 16) introduces the notion that the inability (due to lack of conservation contribution based upon Untied States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) assessment) to now import captive lion trophies into the USA will (potentially) put pressure instead on wild lions for “harvesting“/trophies:

….will this prohibition cause a proportion of the American hunters who might formerly have hunted farmed lions to turn to wild lions, thereby affecting the demand on the wild sector.

Of course, this assumes that there is an overlap of captive lion hunters graduating to wild lion hunting (which though theoretically possible, that link remains unproven). In addition, in theory (if one has ‘faith’ in the hunting industry) there is an immovable limitation of wild lion hunting quotas that are proven to be scientifically sustainable. So, potential wild lion “harvesting” is capped (in theory), regardless of any variables “affecting the demand on the wild sector” (but of course one has to have ‘faith’ that hunting quotas are based on any science in the first place).

Captive lion breeding and hunting is also covered in the Report Appendix A, page 68 onwards, which references a description of canned hunting as a practice where “the target is unfairly prevented from escaping the hunter” – attributed to Chris Mercer, Founder – Campaign Against Canned Hunting, 2015.

Also at Appendix C, the Report promotes Bubye Valley Conservancy (B.V.C.) in Zimbabwe as a beacon of hunting and conservation in harmony. WildCRU also conduct lion research at B.V.C.

However, the Report seems to have conveniently overlooked the over-breeding (the ”surplus 200“) controversy that arose in February 2016 at B.V.C. At B.V.C’s lion hunts, there has been a reported 100% kill rate on B.V.C’s own lion hunting quota (“2 – 3%” of the B.V.C lion population) every year – which says the targeted lions have no real chance of evading the paying hunters, which perhaps demonstrates that “the target is unfairly prevented from escaping the hunter.” Hence, B.V.C. is not considered by key lion advocates as a sanctuary for wild lions, but is a captive lion breeding model supported by trophy hunting income (and therefore, the Report can appear conflicted to some extent on this issue).


Therefore, regardless of ‘beneficial theory to conservation,’ the Report (Para 5.1) concludes/speculates that trophy hunting will come under increasing pressure to survive due to an increasing lack of social acceptance (and spreading trophy import restrictions). Thereby, trophy hunting will find it increasingly hard to remain viable to compete to secure habitat (there is a clear ‘journey’ in motion that is unlikely to relent is the Report’s principal conclusion).

Therefore, the Report suggests it is plausible that trophy hunting has a limited life expectancy, postulating that if key habitat is not to be turned over to uses detrimental to wildlife, then the potential of an ensuing vacuum (prompted by public sentiment and the ‘journey’) will not deliver the desired result of wildlife protection, unless pre-emptive measures are taken.

I would suggest that this ‘journey’s’ destination is also likely to materialise regardless of public sentiment. As human population expansion increasingly demands agricultural land use to meet its needs, hunting concession affordability in comparison will make trophy hunting increasingly non-viable.

The hunting industry across sub-Sahara Africa generates an income of approximately $230m USD per annum. So, that equates to approximately $230m USD/1.4 million km2, or approximately $164.3/km2 ($1.64/hectare). In contrast, it is suggested agriculture generates 300, to 600 times more per land unit area, so there is undeniable pressure on habitat/land returns as human population growth will increasingly demand (and will look increasingly economically viable) more land use for livestock and agriculture” – “How Can ‘We’ Save the African lion, Panthera leo?“ IWB, 5 January 2016

So, in my opinion, it’s a case of social and future economic pressures that will make trophy hunting uncompetitive in regards to securing habitat.

If social momentum truly wants to see trophy hunting’s ‘necessary evil/abuse’ widely superseded, then credible alternatives need to be promoted, demanded and supported (with financing a key pre-requisite).

Such alternatives as photographic tourism (where applicable), or indeed an initiative to finance key habitat protection (ie. via a UNESCO heritage species concept/umbrella), based upon global altruism and overseas development funds invested as an enterprise to support wildlife and community/social needs in parallel.

This latter concept has coined the phrase (in my opinion) of “Fortress Conservation.” The Report (p. 61 – 63) alludes to such an approach in its summary, suggesting the likely potential costs to ‘journey’ towards such an approach for lions as:

An obvious, and perhaps the only plausible, mechanism to achieve this would be some form of international payment to encourage coexistence with lions; to the nearest order of magnitude, and considering only the costs of substituting other land uses for trophy hunting, this could cost as much as the US$1.25 billion estimates by Panthera et al. (2016) adequately to safeguard current protected areas for lions.”

This ‘concept’ was also discussed at the recent ‘Cecil Summit’ (Panthera and WildCRU), 7 September. The United Kingdom Development Fund Minister, Rory Stewart MP participated in the summit and the hypothetical discussion to preserve exclusively for wildlife some 1.2m sq.km (estimated) of current land ‘set-aside’ (parks, hunting concessions presumably etc.).

One element that also needs to be ironed out in any such transition (‘journey’), is to enshrine any habitat thus protected by public funds from simultaneously being ‘enjoyed’ by trophy hunters seeking ‘entertainment’ (ie. baiting lions/wildlife from such publically funded secure habitat areas).

There is also the potential perception that habitat protection funded from external sources is a form of pseudo-colonialism, the ‘buying’ of habitat and wildlife by external forces. However, when it comes to buying up land in Africa, there has been vast swathes of African lands bought by Chinese interests (“What do we know about the Chinese land grab in Africa?Brookings, 5 November 2015) for future agricultural growth, but the full potential extent of Africa’s ‘green revolution’ is yet to fully materialise and negatively contribute to habitat loss. So, such ‘colonial’ threats are already in full motion.

Regardless, any such ‘Fortress Conservation’ will need to satisfy a number of criteria:

  • It will have to ‘value’ wildlife for non-consumptive uses to justify the investment;
  • In addition, it will also have to provide social benefit (to satisfy a Development Fund caveat) to those communities most exposed (which will also counter the Report’s stated ‘community ambivalence’ to wildlife’s presence) to enable wildlife to co-exist in their vicinity;
  • It will need to continually compete for habitat protection vs. increasing human population demand for land use;

In the round, the Report does provide ‘hope’ that the threats posed by trophy hunting are going to transition away – trophy hunting might help to secure habitat, but fails to deliver recognisable conservation of lions therein at a local level.

The Report concludes that significant and over-ridding threats posed by habitat loss and human/wildlife conflict need to be tackled in parallel in the ‘journey’ to ensure habitat security.

There is lots to take in and assess in the Report, so it should be read and digested by all interested in the subject. The Report’s tired claim that in theory (if well regulated etc.) trophy hunting is the saviour of lions/wildlife, is not a view backed by current ‘science’ – if current trophy hunting was universally based on any recognisable science linked to sustainability/conservation, then all of the Report’s stated criteria recommendations (Para for ‘best-practice’ hunting would already be in-situ:

In order to establish directly that trophy hunting of lions is sustainable, a prerequisite is that reliable, standardised, and independently verifiable surveys are conducted in the hunting area………Once the lion population has been surveyed the information can be fed into a harvest rate model, such as that proposed by Caro et al. (2009), to calculate an appropriate, scientifically based quota” – The Report, Para – “Best-practice: Lion populations are sustainably managed, as determined by professional-standard science-based monitoring.



Update: Under the Report heading ‘Contributors’ – the following are listed, with public response to the Report awaited…:

Under the aegis of DEFRA the Report was helpfully informed by evidence and opinions offered during consultations with the following organisations:”


  • 6 December 2016 – “Lion trophy hunting does NOT benefit their conservation. Watch Pieter interviewed about this on @VictoriaLIVE…….tbc.


Born Free

Safari Club International Foundation (SCIF)

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC)

The European Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation (FACE)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Appendix I – Brent Stapelkamp’s  (WildCRU project in Hwange)

7 December 2016

Comments on WildCru’s report on lion hunting!

Much has been said about the recently released report on Lion hunting by WildCRU and I have added my comments here in the hope that the British government get to hear another perspective. Here it is!

I must say that I found the report heavily hunting biased and I don’t see that it so much “grasping the moment to create a movement” as much as “grasping the moment to maintain the momentum”

Where the author says that he and his co-contributors are neither “pro” nor “anti hunting” but “pro-fact”, I feel the report lands on the pro-hunting side purely because it doesn’t take into account all of the facts.

During my decade or so with the WildCRU project in Hwange, specializing in the conflict mitigation but having a central [role] in the ecological study as well as the trophy hunting one, I have been at the coalface and feel I have a deeper appreciation of these facts than the data may show. Years ago for instance I spotted a pattern that occurs after a pride male is trophy hunted on the park boundary. Within a few short weeks new male/males appear and the females within that territory have two choices. The first is that they stand and fight in which case they are either killed themselves or their Cubs are and that is the infanticide that the report describes. From my experience of Hwange, that rarely happens for the lionesses are typical mothers and rather flee with their Cubs. They have nowhere else to go (within the park all territories are full of potential cub killers) but out of the park and amongst people. There they kill livestock (for want of wild prey) until either they die or their Cubs do and the survivors return to the park and settle with the new males. They conceive and all is well until….you guessed it! The next hunting season has started. And the process repeats itself. I know that WildCRU have these data as I was the man instructed to collar all adults in the story chain year in and year out so that we could record this effect and publish it. There are lionesses in some areas that have had 4 or more litters and never raised a single cub to adulthood being stuck in this trap. Where the author repeatedly says that trophy hunting isn’t the main source of mortality to lions (despite Loveridge finding it was in western Zimbabwe in 2016) it is certainly a driver of conflict! If indeed it drives conflict then the data shown in Figure 2 (lion threats ranked) can be looked at with fresh eyes. Imagine then if we took the trophy hunting data and added it to the conflict!

We have seen this pattern elsewhere in Zimbabwe and I urge you all to have a look at your conflict peaks with fresh eyes and see if a pride male was hunted just prior to it.

I have lived this pattern for years from shaking the happy American’s hand in the skinning shed while collecting the collar to going to meetings where every villager is armed with an axe because he heard “the owner of the lions is here!”. The conflict can be severe and last several months and the damage that does to the lion’s image is immeasurable. No wonder Mr Nzou (referenced in the report) said we don’t cry for lions and the author uses that (as many hunters here do) to justify lion hunting.

I don’t think that all the facts are being considered!

The author goes onto say there is little evidence that trophy hunting substantial negative effects at a national and regional level, and where it is well regulated and devotes sufficient authority to the land owners has the potential to contribute to lion conservation. Is that lack of evidence because of a weakness in the data collection or because of a bias towards analysis of data that pleases the issuer of your permits? over the years I know that parks permits were always the worry and indeed “rocking the boat” was seen as jeopardizing them plus there were long periods without permits where no monitoring was happening for up to a year at a time. To put too much emphasis on the [seeming] lack of evidence again is missing the point.

Surely Zimbabwe is viewed as “one of the well regulated ones?” A country that the British government itself describes as one of the most corrupt countries in the world? A place where the Land owners are given “sufficient authority” over its management and yet here we debate -post Cecil!

My point is even in the best example we can’t manage lion hunting properly so we should go with the cautionary principle and stop it immediately before we lose our lions.

Bubye Valley Conservancy is promoted as a successful example in the appendices because they have seen “an exponential increase” in lion numbers there. The management of the Bubye, as well as the report, make it clear that there is no viable alternative to hunting but go onto say that they have a higher lion density than anywhere else in Africa! I had a personal attack from a hunter at Bubye who told me that he sees 3 or 4 prides of lions in a day there without telemetry, not to mention the rhino and the elephant and the wild dogs etc. sounds to me like the best possible photographic safari location don’t you think?

I wrote a fun little piece called “the quality street theorem” that, if you google it, will explain my understanding of hunters’ attachment to lion hunting.

I argued with the hunter from the Bubye that where his only measure of successful lion management was numbers or density it was not a successful example in my opinion. I told him that a double fenced area was never going to be repeatable over African lion range and that fortress conservation doesn’t work. The author mentions the fact that the human population will virtually double in the next few decades and that that would mean more pressure on resources and I agree but to me places like Bubye are desperately vulnerable to other pressures not mentioned in the report. With a population increase coming, politicians will be under pressure to satisfy land hungry voters and what is more vulnerable to the whims of those politicians than an elitist white enclave that only benefits their elitist clients? Look at the Save conservancy!

If lions are to survive this tidal wave coming we need to blur the lines not redefine them and we do that, not by supplying thousands of kilograms of meat a month to the people but by involving them in not only the profits but the decision making!

Bubye should not be lauded as a success in a modern African context.

And finally the Author references Campfire and says that finding suggest that if trophy hunting was to become unviable in Zimbabwe that thousands of households would lose [their] benefits from the scheme. Campfire is a “four letter word” here on the peripheries of the protected areas precisely because the people see no benefit whatsoever. To mention Campfire in a community meeting is to invite being chased away with sharp objects! The corruption so deeply entrenched in our wildlife policies and systems is going to take years to sort out and honestly speaking our lions don’t have the luxury of time!

Let’s use the precautionary principle and find alternatives. Let’s create a movement and not maintain the momentum.




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