In Zimbabwe, some conservationists are breeding lions to ensure these vulnerable apex predators don’t die out. A number of African countries are already reporting that lions are no longer present in their national parks.
As night falls, intruders stalk onto Lorra Sibanda’s property at the edge of a vast bushland in Zimbabwe. The next day, the 42-year-old wakes to find the savaged caracases of her cattle and goats.
“If I hear them coming, usually at night, I alert the [neighbor] boys to come and kill them,” Sibanda told DW.
Sibanda is referring to the lions that live in Hwange National Park, which borders her farm. She could have more than 20 livestock, she says, which would be an impressive holding for the area. But the voracious lions have whittled her inventory down to just three cattle and six goats.
“I now depend on others to help me, when I could have been helping others,” she says of the lion attacks, which have damaged her livelihood.
It is exactly this kind of conflict between humans and wildlife that the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT), which is dedicated to the conservation of the big cat, says has contributed to the collapse of the continent’s lion populations.
With the animals facing a variety of other threats, including habitat loss and poaching, ALERT is trying to boost numbers with a pilot conservation program based on raising money from tourism in order to breed lions and then release them into the wild.
“We want to restock national parks of different areas within Africa where the lion population has dropped drastically, or is close to zero,” Ngaatendwe Chemambo explained to DW. Chemambo is operations manager at Antelope Park, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, where ALERT is headquartered.
Lion tourism — help or hindrance?
So what are they doing to achieve this?
Currently, some 113 lions live alongside elephants, zebras, giraffes, kudus, impalas, hartebeests, wildebeests and other animals at Antelope Park, a private game reserve which offers guests overnight accommodation and “wildlife experiences,” such as walking with lions for a fee.
Money raised from these tourism activities then goes to ALERT’s conservation efforts, such as breeding and preparing lions for release into the wild.
The reserve has come under criticism in the past. In 2008, British newspaper The Sunday Timesreported that more than 50 lion cubs bred there were sold to big-game-hunting operations to be shot for sport.
Antelope Park representatives denied to DW that it was in any way involved with trophy hunting. Even so, the tourism/breeding/release services the park does openly provide are themselves controversial.
A comprehensive 2012 study in Oryx, a Cambridge University Press journal of conservation issues, found that “captive-origin lions have no role in species restoration,” and that “approaches to reintroduction exemplified by the lion encounter industry do not address the reasons for the decline of lions in situ, nor do they represent a model that can be widely applied to restoration of threatened felids elsewhere.”
Organizations such as ALERT argue that money from “lion encounter” tourism helps toward conservation efforts, as it can encourage organized breeding, which can in turn lead to the release of more lions into the wild. If the money was not coming from this tourism source, it would not be coming at all, they argue.
According to Chemambo, the five lions — four female and one male — they plan to soon release into one as yet unnamed national park in Zimbabwe have so far had no interaction with humans, which they see as an important pillar of their system.
“Once it is successful, we are taking it to other parts of Africa,” said Chemambo, who added that ALERT is running a similar pilot program in Zambia, and is in talks with the government of Burundi, which is also interested in boosting its own severely depleted lion numbers.
Saving lions to benefit communities?
While the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species categorizes lions as “vulnerable,” the population in countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe has grown in recent years.
That’s largely thanks to conservation efforts that involve the local community, said Tinashe Farawo, a spokesperson with the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, in an interview with DW.
“As Africa, we should speak with one voice when it comes to wildlife conservation, and support sustainable utilization for the benefit of future generations,” said Farawo, adding that Zimbabwe would continue to promote a method of conservation that aims to both educate locals and provide them with tangible signs that conservation helps their communities.
“Sustainable utilization” is a conservation philosophy that allows for managed hunting of wild animals for a fee. A hunter can pay to shoot a lion, for example, but the fee should then benefit the local community.
For instance, the cash could go toward drilling a borehole to locate water for a well, or building fences around farmland to protect livestock.
The concept behind the strategy is that such actions will cause the community to value the animals more. In turn, people will be less tempted to poach them because they will see a direct benefit in keeping lions around and have less reason to fear them — or so the thinking goes.
If lion breeding and release programs are to work, they will need to go hand-in-hand with strategies to convince rural Africans of the animal’s importance, say experts. Indeed people have reason to fear lions, acknowledges Antelope Park.
“People are afraid of lions,” said Chemambo. “So when people see a lion, or know someone whose animals have been attacked by lions, the first thought is to kill every lion that comes within range.”
Tough road ahead
Winning over rural Africans to lion conservation and breeding programs will become more important in the future, believes Chemambo, especially if the continent’s current population of 1.2 billion will double by 2050, as the United Nations predicts. Such a population increase would put even more pressure on lion habitats, with the animals much more likely to encounter humans.
Sibanda remains skeptical. She says she was one of the Zimbabweans who scoffed at the media frenzy created when Cecil the lion was killed on the boundary of Hwange National Park by an American dentist.
“I am still puzzled why people consider lions special. Special for what?” asked Sibanda. “I have lost countless goats and cattle to lions. Now you tell me they want to breed them? Why? It does not make sense to me.”