Is Trophy Hunting a Major Threat to Lions?

By Jared Kukura, Wild Things Initiative, 10 August 2020

For more than a decade, we have been told trophy hunting is not a major threat to lions. But is this claim supported by science?

Trophy hunting advocates will point to recent reports published by members of WildCRU and the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group stating trophy hunting is not a major threat to lions to reinforce their position. But these reports are secondary sources. They cite primary sources to back up their claim rather than providing supporting data.

The primary sources downplaying of trophy hunting’s threat to lions are two reports from 2006 conservation strategy workshops. Both workshops were being partially sponsored by Safari Club International and included representatives from the safari hunting industry.

It is naïve to assume the workshops’ sponsorship by and in collaboration with the hunting industry had no impact on biasing other participants. There is a past history of industry lobbyists successfully marketing their products to self-proclaimed unbiased members of the scientific community through similar workshops and symposiums (Purdue Pharma perfected these marketing techniques with Oxycontin).

Even so, these reports fail to do anything more than identify trophy hunting as a threat and underscore the need for a revised assessment of threats to lions that includes strong scientific data not reliant on potentially influenced opinions.

Let us first discuss the 2006 Conservation Strategy for the Lion in Eastern and Southern Africa report. A quick look at the executive summary shows prey availability was deemed to have the greatest impact on the viability of important lion populations with no mention of trophy hunting as a threat. But we are smart enough to know to read beyond the executive summary.

Table 3.6 claimed to assess and rank threats (including trophy hunting) but fails to do anything more than simply identify where threats occur. The table is also full of simple errors that demonstrate a lack of credibility. For instance, many of the threats’ scores were improperly summed with habitat conversion being severely underscored. Additionally, habitat conversion scored more points than trophy hunting in the Serengeti despite not being listed as a threat in that area.

Even without these simple errors, the table failed to appropriately rank threats because it did not properly weigh scores. Each LCU (lion conservation unit) is given the same point threshold for its threats regardless of the size of threat or population which skews the highest overall threat score towards frequency and not importance. This also puts trophy hunting at an inherent disadvantage in total points scored since it is not legal in many areas while other threats like prey availability have a much higher potential overall score for being a potential threat in every LCU (again, most frequent threat does not equate to most important threat).

However, these concerns could have been put to rest in Chapter 4 when experts were asked to rank “a set of factors according to expected impact on the viability of all lion populations in the region.” Unfortunately, trophy hunting was excluded “due to the difficulty of separating potentially negative biological impacts on lion populations from improperly managed offtakes from potentially positive socio-economic impacts on lion conservation.”

By the experts’ own admission, they could not properly rank trophy hunting in relation to other threats. And for those wishing to still lean on Table 3.6 as the end-all-be-all of threat rankings, Chapter 4 and the executive summary list prey availability as the top threat to lions, a conclusion not supported by the scores in Table 3.6.

Similar critiques can be made of the 2006 Conservation Strategy for the Lion in West and Central Africa report. Trophy hunting is only legal in three of the 22 LCUs putting it, again, at an inherent disadvantage with scores skewed towards frequency and not importance. Advocates can also come to the false conclusion that trophy hunting is no threat at all to lions since it did not score any points in its three LCUs.

And for those still wanting to hold on to the opinions expressed in the 2006 workshops, are the opinions corroborated by recent scientific evidence? Not particularly.

Those with a careful eye may have noted that trophy hunting received zero threat points in the Selous LCU. But only a few years later, a study was published listing trophy hunting as the main culprit of lion harvest declines. As it turned out, short-term leases in the area were both highly profitable and highly unsustainable, a common theme with industries built on the destruction of nature.

And while the workshop for lions in west and central Africa recommended expanding trophy hunting’s role in lion conservation for the region, a recent report from experts (including 2006 workshop participants) criticized the data supporting trophy hunting and recommended new approaches. As well, studies showed the trophy hunting model crumbled in Central African Republic and is largely unprofitable in Cameroon.

It is important to note the 2006 reports cited by trophy hunting advocates included opinions that failed to come to the conclusions often described. It seems many can agree that trophy hunting is a threat to lions but is it a major threat? That depends. “Major” is a subjective term but it does seem an argument can be made based on recent scientific evidence.

But the reality is there needs to be an updated assessment that includes recent scientific data if we want the trophy hunting threat to be properly characterized. And no, the hunting industry cannot sponsor or participate in this assessment.

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