Animals Committee Meeting of CITES in Johannesburg, South Africa, African lion trade became an issue. Both the World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) separately reviewed the status of the African lion. They made contradictory recommendations about the significance of trade in lion parts. The Significant Trade Working Group, on which I served, passed over the African lion, the caracal cat, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and a number of other game mammals because of other species in more dire need of review due to their status and significant trade. Kenya was not happy and attempted to add the African lion to the list of species selected for special review in the final closing hours of the meeting. The Committee declined to add it to 10 other species that were selected, but it will be considered at the next Animals Committee Meeting in 2005 in Geneva. Kenya is expected to submit a written paper.
The Significant Trade Review process can lead to the uplisting of Appendix II species to Appendix I and/or a prohibition of trade in the species. The contradictory recommendations of WCMC and IUCN’s Trade Specialist Group were revealing. The WCMC said that lion populations are "declining… due to habitat loss, prey base loss and persecution…. The main threat is currently persecution for pest control," citing the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, 2001. The lions’ "total effective population size is estimated at below 10,000 mature breeding individuals…." Nevertheless, the WCMC did not recommend the African lion for review because "South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are the main exporters for this species and show relatively high but stable levels of trade over time. These are countries in which the lion is most abundant," so the trade is relatively insignificant where it occurs. Tanzania had the highest trophy trade from 1992 through 2002.
The chart on previous page shows the safari hunting countries with the largest lion trade. It makes several things immediately obvious. Tanzania has the highest volume of trophy lion exports by far; South Africa (many captive bred), Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana follow, in that order. Botswana has not had significant lion trophy exportation in a decade because of its excessively restrictive quota, but contrast that lowly figure with the number of skins Botswana was exporting before the closure in 2001. It has had the highest number of skins in international trade, greatly surpassing all other countries. It most certainly documents the waste of what could be a conservation resource if more lions had been on the tourist hunting quota. Of course, lion hunting in Botswana is now closed, but we understand the destruction of lion in problem animal control is worsening, as we would expect.
We think that WCMC’s recommendation that the lion not be reviewed further was sound, but IUCN’s Wildlife Trade Programme contradicted it. IUCN stated that "[g]iven the threats facing lions and new research findings, a review of the sustainability of trophy exports is recommended."
The threats and new findings are the false issues that have been dominating media coverage over the past couple of years. First, IUCN quoted sources that the African lion population had declined from "200,000 in the 1980s to around 20,000 today." We disagree. It is preposterous to claim that there were 200,000 lions in the 1980s without any basis whatsoever. The most up-to-date study does not show a significant decline for the past decade, if any at all. That study, Conservation of the African Lion: Contribution to a Status Survey, is a compilation of the opinions of the 50 most authoritative experts on African lion of our time across Africa by Conservation Force and the International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife. It shows a mean estimate of 40,000 African lions and that the number is basically stable.
The second issue raised was the recent claim that Feline AIDS (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus), the feline equivalent of HIV, is killing lions. That is total nonsense. It is a known fact that cats do not succumb to Feline AIDS. For many years, cancer and AIDS researchers have been studying Feline AIDS to better understand why it does not have significant effects on cats, because it does not. The recent presumption in the media that Feline AIDS was suspected when a whole pride of lions was found dead together was wholly unfounded and contrary to decades of research. The probable cause of a whole pride dying simultaneously is poison, not a disease that has not been found to harm cats in decades of study.
Canine Distemper Virus was cited as another reason for concern. That disease has in fact killed thousands of lions in an overpopulated region of Tanzania, but lions reproduce like rabbits, and vice versa. In a few short years, literally thousands of lions have replaced those that died.
Regardless, those are not trade issues at all. Moreover, trophy hunting is not significant, nor could it be of real biological consequence. Most male lions are surplus and lions are prolific reproducers as well. The young, nomadic male you shoot is not likely to ever have a pride and the older pride males can’t keep a pride. All of the current preoccupation by the hunting industry with trophy quality and lion age fosters a misperception in the media that safari hunting somehow has significance to the population status of lion. Safari hunting saves more lions than it takes, which cannot be said for problem animal control, which is a threat to this otherwise robust and resilient species.
The African lion is likely to be added to the Significant Trade Review Process at the next Animals Committee Meeting in 2005 in Geneva. This will require the selected exporting countries to explain and justify their nondetriment findings and internal quotas. Those countries with lower level trophy trade may not be able to bear the expense of population estimation and documentation. On the other hand, those with lesser levels of trophy exports may not be selected. The hunting community must remember that quota setting and nondetriment finding methodology itself is currently undergoing review. It is bound to become more demanding and expensive to satisfy export permit findings requirements. There can be no doubt that exporting countries are going to be called upon to have documented findings. That will be problematic when species populations can’t be satisfactorily estimated because the species’ habits or its habitats make it too expensive or impossible.