The Curious Incident of the Lion Hunt in South Africa

So there’s been some debate lately on the interwebs about a certain lady, who was photographed with a certain dead carcass, and the certain lodge that made it happen.

wow much lion so kill such slaughter
Melissa Bachman, with her lion kill. Photo from The Independent; photo links to original source.

So this photo is all over Buzzfeed/the internet, and people keep asking me about it, and I’ve tried to mostly ignore it (because I don’t think it’s the best example by which to highlight the plight of vulnerable wild species), but I would (belatedly) like to respond to some of the more outrageous things people have said about lions, lion killing, and trophy hunting in light of this particular incident.

For the record, I believe that sustainable, responsible, fair-chase hunting is an important part of conservation. However, here are a few responses to *ridiculous* statements, arguments, and assertions that have come up in light of the lion hunt photo incident. Let me clear up a few things for you:

1. “The lion she hunted is going to feed hungry Africans in need.”
No. Nope. No. Wow, this is the worst one. Lions are not a sustenance animal. No one who needs food is eating a lion. Likewise, no one is poaching a lion to eat. If you’re poaching for food, then you’re poaching any of the million small mammals or ungulates or birds. They’re more plentiful, easier to catch, and a hell of a lot easier to kill. You know who’s eating lions? “Foodies” and safari fetishists.

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2. “She’s taking out a dangerous lion, though, that probably killed somebody’s kid. She’s basically saving somebody’s life.”
Lions definitely do conflict with humans. Sometimes they kill goats, sheep or cows to eat, and on (rare) occasions, they attack people. However, the lion you’re shooting from a van on your canned hunt and/or well-protected, well-guided safari hunt is not a conflict animal. The conflict animal is off wandering through the difficult-to-reach semi-populated rural regions, not hanging out in a reserve full of food. Unless it’s 1898 and you’re Patterson, keeping all-night vigils to Meet the Beast and protect the people; going near-mad with lack of sleep before finally looking The Ghost in the eyes…you’re not “helping” anyone. You’re just shooting a random lion. Possibly one with a lady lion and cubs who were depending on him to come home. Know what happens to cubs whose father lions don’t come home?


3. “So what, lions can just do whatever they want to people now and we can’t kill even one of them?”
Directly related to #2 — there are other solutions to conflict than lethal force. Some conservationists (*ahem*yours truly*ahem*), for example, help local cattle owners build livestock fences that keep them from losing cattle and sheep in the first place. Game rangers and wildlife officials trap and relocate problem or dangerous animals. Some reserves use selective fencing and behavioral modification to keep lions and people far apart. Lethal force is sometimes necessary, but should be judiciously and selectively applied. See #2 again.

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4. “Lions aren’t even endangered.”
Lions aren’t as endangered as, say, tigers (of whom there are more in captivity than in the wild, and who may easily go extinct in our lifetime), but their numbers HAVE declined by 90% over just the past 75 years. That’s what you might call “a precipitous drop” or “staggeringly tragic” or “oh s*** what if there’s no lions left by 2050??”

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5. “Um, I think the game managers know more about how many lions they can kill than you do.”
Wildlife managers/lawmakers are not infallible. Particularly not in places with a history of corruption and an ear that’s often generously bent to the whims of wealthy donors.

6. “I mean, it’s legal though.”
I will say this one time, and not again: just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right. (Or smart, humane, helpful, sustainable, or a good idea.)

Lions napping in the Masai Mara National Reserve, April 2013. Photo by Alexandra Sutton

Now, then, since I know I’m also speaking to a more academically-minded audience, let me offer a quick little journal-debate timeline of some of the trophy hunting discussion (paraphrased, obviously, for humor & clarity):

2004 – Whitman et al.: “Trophy hunting *might* be OK…if you make sure everyone only hunts old males on their way out of the pride anyway.” (published in Nature, Feb 2004)

2006 – Lindsey et al.: “Trophy hunting *might* be OK…but only if you make sure it’s done ethically, isn’t corrupted, is managed reliably, is profitable to local communities, and you’re super careful about the genetics so you don’t accidentally screw up the gene pool by taking out the wrong adults. All that’s really hard to do, FYI.” (published in Conservation Biology, Nov 2006)

2007 – Lindsey et al. (again): “Um, guys…we said ONLY if you could avoid all those problems. That was like – I mean, we didn’t actually think – OK, listen, you ALMOST DEFINITELY cannot avoid all those problems. Maybe in a magical future where there’s no corruption. Then yeah, sure.” (published in Biological Conservation, Feb 2007)

2009 – Packer et al.: “Here’s the thing guys. We don’t know what effect trophy hunting has. No one could possibly know! What are we, lion scientists?! Hahahahha. No, seriously, though, we’re taking a gamble here. ‘Sport hunting is an inherently risky strategy!’ [Ed. Note: verbatim] Strap in for a show! And although we’re gonna sell you the whole seat…you’ll only need the edge. Whoooooo!” (published in Public Library of Science: One, Jun 2009) **Open Access — read the whole thing if you like!**

2010 – Packer et al.: “Hey. Yeah….well, we’ve been hunting lions in Tanzania and it’s – well, it’s been – I mean, it hasn’t even been a big deal. Well, except for in half the places they’re hunted that we studied. Yeah, in those places we saw ‘steep declines.’ [Ed. Note: verbatim] But I mean, what is 50% of sites? That’s like, not even a technical majority! I take half your sandwich away, and that’s fine! You’re still half less hungry than you were! Haha, yeah, so, you know, what we’re saying is that half the sites went horribly wrong. But outside of that half, we’re gravy, baby!” (published in Conservation Biology, Sep 2010)

2013 – Lindsey et al.: “GUYS R U SERIOUS. ‘However, there remain several problems associated with the management of lion hunting which may perpetuate negative impacts.’ [Ed. Note: verbatim] That is literally what we said. We said that, in our introduction AND our conclusion. HOW MUCH CLEARER CAN WE BE? The whole thing is super corrupt, and you gotta either stop altogether or get the global community to clean up their collective act.” (published in Public Library of Science: One, Sep 2013) **Open Access — read the whole thing if you like!**

2013 – Nelson et al.: “Word.” (published in Oryx, The International Journal of Conservation, Oct 2013)

So there you have it. In the interest of forever shaking the tin cup for conservation, I’ll also plug this here:

If you’d like to help lions & people, click the image below and help us Build a Boma. Bomas are super-strong livestock fences, fortified with chain link and metal, and my own research (as well as the extensive work of the Anne K. Taylor Fund) show how effective they are at saving lions from conflict, with the added bonus of helping local people keep their food sources secure. $500 builds a boma  — $25 maintains one for a year.

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Win-win situations are the rare unicorns of conservation, but this might just be one of them…

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