We had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with Professor Craig Packer, one of the world's leading experts on lion conservation! He shared his insights and thoughts with us on a hot topic dividing conservationist: trophy hunting!
Con Con: What drove your attention to the issue of trophy hunting?
Craig: “I initially studied animal behaviour and started my career working with Jane Goodall in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. When I finished my PhD, I wanted to carry on doing that sort of work and I was very lucky to be able to take over the Serengeti Lion Project! I viewed that just as a wonderful opportunity to study the natural behaviour, the behavioural ecology, and the evolutionary biology of an unusually cooperative species.
[Years later] I had students looking at human-lion conflict having to do with livestock losses which can provoke people into retaliation. About that time, I was approached by the Tanzanian government to look into an outbreak of man-eating lions in southern Tanzania and I thought: ‘Well I guess we should really be looking into that, that’s more important than livestock losses because anything that risks human lives really has to be given priority!’. Then I had more students working on man-eating lions and the issue was a reflection of the fact that lions don't confine themselves inside the boundaries of these parks. They go outside and there are a number of issues involving retaliation, diseases of domestic dogs, and as it turns out sport hunting.
📸 Josh Robertson
I had a graduate student who was very interested in what impact sport hunting might have on lions, and so when we started, we were operating under the assumption that sport hunting was a very positive thing because it sets aside large areas of Tanzania. Far more real estates were defined as hunting blocks than national parks, so the potential existed for being a sizeable proportion of the overall lion population being in these hunting blocks rather than inside national parks.
We were wondering if there were ways that hunters could harvest lions in a way that would not be harmful to the lion population. Our basic research inside the park had very solidly confirmed that male lions are key members of the lion family and so lion hunting has a very different impact than buffalo hunting. Those bulls mate with the females, they go off and the females attend to the babies all by themselves. A male lion is a defender of the pride and if something happens to him then his family is at risk of being killed by a replacement male through infanticide when they take over the pride!
We were using simulation models and we could see quite clearly that sport hunting could be very harmful to lions but we also realised that there was a happy solution to the problem. What we came up with was: ‘Don't worry about how many lions there are but just make sure you don't shoot young individuals below a certain age’. If you're only shooting the older males then all our really accurate simulation models will tell you that it’s ok. You can shoot all the males above a certain age and you can conveniently think that all the younger males will do the duty of fatherhood and will be looking after the families and then when they are old enough you can take them out and there’ll be another generation of males so it will all perpetuate perfectly happily.”
📸 Werner Maritz
Con Con: Why do you think the killing of Cecil the lion sparked such a massive outrage at the time?
Craig:“I think there are some larger things and some smaller things. The larger thing is that sport hunting is kind of a leftover from a 19th-century attitude towards wildlife. The 19th-century sportsmen were also the naturalists and so they were some famous guys who were going to these foreign countries and they’d bag some animals, would bring them back and put them into museums.
As time went on, it’s become very publicly and universally well-known that you can go out and watch animals and you don't have to shoot them. The big thing that is cool about animals is how they behave. It’s not having their skin or their head in your trophy room. I think there has been an overall switch away from trophies and away from animal products to more the experience of enjoying the natural lives of these animals.
Through that time, there has been a growing dismay and intolerance towards those individuals who still shoot things and I think as part of that there is also a real cultural divide. The urban elite tends to be wildlife watchers, while rural people tend to be more of the hunters and the shooters. If you look at the average sport hunters going to Africa, they are in their very late 50s, they tend to be white and they typically come from the southern part of the US.
With Walter Palmer, we were at that moment where everything was converging towards this shift from ‘let’s bring home a trophy’ to ‘let’s just let the animal lives its life’ and then you have a dentist! People can think unpleasant thoughts toward their dentist because dentists just cause them pain so I think there was a little bit of that. And he is a wealthy American and then the lion had a name! Most of the trophy lions, nobody has ever seen them before but this lion happened to have a radio collar, to be part of a study that was going on in Oxford and it had a wonderfully appealing name: Cecil! That was the perfect storm! You had the much broader winds of change away from hunting and more towards the experience of enjoying animals and leaving them to live their own lives, and then you had a dentist, and you had Cecil. Boom!”
📸 Shannon Wild
Con Con: One argument in favour of trophy hunting is that it brings important sums of money to the conservation sector and to the local communities, what is your opinion on this?
Craig:“I would say that’s the big lie of the hunting industry! I think we can talk about sport hunting as a conflict between two religions. On one extreme you have animal rights organisations who would set free all the laboratory animals and at the complete opposite end of the spectrum are people who believe that everything will survive as long as it has a value. What they say with sport hunting is that it brings value to wildlife so that local people will put up with the fact that lions eat their livestock or eat their children, but that’s simply not the case in most of Africa.
📸 Josh Robertson
I’m not a member of either religion though! My view is that if sport hunting can indeed bring enough value to lions then sure do it! In the case of Cecil that was on government land in a very corrupt government in Zimbabwe. Walter Palmer paid $55,000 to shoot Cecil and out of that $55,000 the vast majority would have gone to the hunting operator who sold the safari to the dentist. The amount of money that goes back into lion conservation and which goes to local villages out of that is very hard to know exactly but most guesses that people have come up with is about 3-6% of whatever the hunter pays. That’s not much…
Here is the problem: maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem in which Cecil grew up takes money. You have to pay for rangers who go out and do anti-poaching, you have to keep the livestock herders away, you have to work with the local communities to bring some sort of positive tolerance of wildlife to their community and we have an informed estimate of what it costs to protect 1km2 of lion habitat, and that's in the order of $1,000, maybe as much as $2,000, per km2. A lion needs maybe 100km2 and needs to live until he is at least 6 years of age, so that’s $600,000 that needs to go directly into conservation and I would say to be safe you should probably try to raise a million dollars.
What I always said about Cecil and Walter Palmer is that if he had actually spent a million dollars and every penny of that million dollars had gone back into conservation, then sure, shoot Cecil! But he didn’t, he only paid $55,000 and out of that a few thousands went back to conservation so that’s the problem.”
Con Con: In your opinion, if all African countries banned trophy hunting tomorrow, would it be good or bad for wildlife conservation?
Craig: Even though Zimbabwe is a very corrupt country there are nevertheless a couple of conservancies that are privately managed and can generate enough revenue from their sport hunting to cover their operating costs. There would not be lions there [in Zimbabwe] if it wasn't for sport hunting. So as I said, if it pays and its true then I’m not against it but in most cases it doesn’t! We’ve seen through most of Africa that lion populations have been collapsing and so they have patently failed to protect lion numbers on their reserves. There are also a few [places] in Namibia where there have been some robust lion numbers and a few places where the revenues largely come from sport hunting.
To me, sport hunting is 85-90% failing but I wouldn't want to get rid of sport hunting altogether because there is that 10-15% that’s working! I’m not in favour for a ban on lion hunting, what I am in favour of is much, much, much greater oversight and for that there really must be a concerted effort to really measure the impact that sport hunting has in these different areas.”
📸 Roberto Isotti
Con Con: Are you optimistic about the future of lions and wildlife in Africa?
Craig: “I think there are some success stories in Africa. Lion populations are declining in many areas but in other areas, they are quite secure. In fact, there are more lions in South Africa today than there were a hundred years ago! I think there are islands of lion stability where things are going to be ok.
The other really promising development is eco-philanthropy. There are numbers of very wealthy people who are actually managing some of the parks in Africa and they are enthusing massive sums of money philanthropically! There is a person named Craig Carr who puts millions of dollars of funding every year. There is also an organisation called African Parks which is able to do phenomenal fundraising events, putting massive amounts of money into conservation
As long as the money keeps flowing in these places will be fine, but a thing to remember about Africa is that as long as the land is protected Africa is incredibly resilient. Any of these places that might be fairly trashed at the moment because of mismanagement, corruption, overhunting or whatever, if they can be managed well and if the land is not converted to agriculture they’ll come back! So I am cautiously optimistic.”
📸 Chris du Plessis