Scientists mull the future of lions at Etosha meetBy: JANA-MARI SMITH
HIGHLY QUALIFIED scientists and conservation groups gathered at a landmark conference in Namibia last week to discuss the future of the iconic African cat: the lion.
The group consisted of members of the African Lion Working Group (ALWG), an organisation that was founded in 1999 because “of this need amongst biologists to communicate in a formal way”, Sarel van der Merwe, chairperson of the ALWG, said last week.
Van der Merwe said the rapid decline of free-roaming lion populations in the sub-Saharan African region triggered deep concerns among scientists and has elevated the need to study the lion and to pinpoint solutions which could revive their populations.
Tammy Hoth, the director of the AfriCat Foundation in Namibia, said the two-day conference highlighted the precarious position in which free-roaming lions find themselves today. She said it was important to note that “lion numbers have dropped from approximately 200 000 in the 1970s to below 50 000 currently.
Hoth, whose AfriCat Foundation organised and hosted the event, said the conference participants were informed that some countries’ lion populations have dropped so low that there is “little hope of redemption unless the respective governments put into place renewed policy and regulation and take the conservation of their lion populations seriously”.
Some of the issues that plague the lion populations include illegal hunting, over-utilisation of trophy-size animals and lack of capacity to control and regulate quotas. Hoth added that “most frightening of all, [is] the increase in the lion bone trade, canned lion hunting and uncontrolled captive breeding”.
Most agree that human encroachment of lions’ habitat is one of the biggest culprits. With the ever-expanding take-over of land by humans, the natural prey of lions has been “squeezed out”, forcing lions to prey on livestock. And, in retaliation, livestock owners kill lions indiscriminately. “It is our responsibility to bring attention to the situation with high-level scientific work,” Van der Merwe said.
Hoth said there was an upside, though. A number of the ALWG conservationists reported increased successes with human-wildlife conflict mitigation strategies and increased awareness among communities about the plus side of looking after the lions in their midst.
She said delegates at the conference praised Namibia for its positive contribution to lion conservation by developing communal conservancies. She said conflict between farmers and lions still needs serious attention, though.