Dr Craig Packer is an American biologist, zoologist, and ecologist chiefly known for his research on lions in Tanzania. He worked hard to convince the trophy hunting industry and government departments to adopt a transparent, scientifically-based strategy in order to ensure the sustainability of lion populations and of the industry. Although his research and efforts resulted in a greater understanding of the impact of trophy hunting on lion populations, he was ultimately exiled from the country after rattling too many cages.
We interview Dr Packer:
Numbers: Current estimates put the African lion population at 20,000 to 30,000 – a 96% reduction from 450,000 in the 1940s. They occupy 8% of their historical range, and populations declined by 60% during 1994-2014 in all but four African countries. Is the current lion population stable?
C.P.: I’ve never been comfortable with the estimated percentage-lost-since-whatever-date people use; there were no reasonable estimates until recently. However, if we just talk about habitat loss, yes, there has been an enormous reduction in lion habitat since, say, the 1890s.
Factors: The primary causes of lion population reductions are widely believed to be the loss of habitat, loss of prey base and human-lion conflict. To that trio of causes, US Fish and Wildlife Services adds trophy hunting when it is not managed correctly. Although your book does cover the three primary causes mentioned above, the main focus is on the impact of trophy hunting and your engagement with that industry. Does that focus reflect a personal belief that trophy hunting is a significant factor contributing to lion population reductions?
C.P.: We published a paper in 2011 showing that trophy hunting had been poorly managed in Tanzania, and, thus, had likely contributed to an overall reduction in lion numbers in the country up to that point. The Tanzanian government had vigorously encouraged hunters to shoot as many lions as possible in their respective hunting blocks, and most of the blocks were clearly overhunted. These were in areas that were not dramatically affected by habitat loss, and, if human-lion conflict was also a factor, the hunting operators had patently failed to provide the necessary incentives for people to “live with lions.”
Trophy hunting then and now: In your book ‘Lions in the Balance‘ you refer to trophy hunting quotas in Tanzania and offtakes that were too high and of the shooting of young (three-year-old) males as contributing to the significant drop in Tanzania lion populations. Could you provide information supporting the above statement and do you believe that much has changed in that country in the last several years?
C.P.: For many years, Tanzanian hunting operators routinely posted photographs of their “trophy” lions, so it was clear that many companies filled their quotas by allowing clients to shoot males as young as two years of age. Male lions in Tanzania don’t reach maturity until they are about four, and they then need two years residency in a pride of females to be able to produce a surviving cohort of offspring — younger animals are either killed or forced to leave home by replacement males. However, even if hunters shoot immature animals, their impacts won’t necessarily affect the entire population unless they have shot out too manyof the older males. Given the absence of any sort of age minimum, we looked at the impacts of differing levels of offtake, and we found that hunting was harmful wherever more than one lion was shot per thousand square kilometres in the Selous Game Reserve (which holds one of the richest lion habitats in all of Africa) or more than one lion per 2,000 km2 in the rest of Tanzania’s hunting blocks. We had previously developed simulation models that mimicked the impacts of trophy hunting on lion populations and found that a quota wouldn’t be necessary if hunters only removed males that were at least 6 yrs of age. Tanzania claims to have adopted the recommended 6-yr minimum, but they have not been transparent in showing evidence of compliance. They point to the very low number of lion trophies that have been exported the past years, but these numbers are pretty much what we would have expected from the long-term trends since the 1980s. Unless they were to provide concrete evidence that they are no longer allowing the shooting of under-aged males, I would suspect they have largely been conducting business as usual.
By the way, later work has suggested that an 8-year minimum might be more appropriate in Zambia where the lions are additionally subject to high levels of poaching via wire snares and in South Africa where males take longer to reach maturity (6 yrs instead of the 4 yrs in East Africa).
Why did you leave Tanzania? The evolution of your journey as a lion conservationist in Tanzania is well mapped in your book. You started out as being very supportive of the notion that well-managed trophy hunting of lions could help maintain stable lion populations, and your engagement of the Tanzanian authorities and the trophy hunting industry was through that lens. And yet, the book chronicles your conversion over the years to a somewhat sceptical critic of the industry – based mainly on continued non-sustainable offtakes and practises, refusal to change based on scientific input, lack of transparency, rampant corruption and the bullying tactics by some members of the industry. It is clear that your continued presence in Tanzania became less secure, but the book did not go into detail about why you left Tanzania. Was there a deciding moment or factor that caused you to move back to the United States?
C.P.: The Tanzanian Government revoked my research clearance, so I was unable to continue working in the country. I was also informed that I was no longer allowed to enter the country even as a tourist. I was exiled because I attempted to reform the Tanzanian hunting industry.
Cecil: The exposé about the killing of Cecil the Lion near Hwange (Zimbabwe) by American dentist and trophy hunter Walter Palmer galvanised discussion, albeit heated and ideological, about the trophy hunting of wild free-roaming lions. Many ‘sustainable use’ protagonists claim that this particular discussion is not conducive to constructive debate about lion conservation, whereas others argue that shining a spotlight into the secretive trophy hunting industry is precisely what is needed. Did any good come of this watershed moment in the conversation about lion conservation?
C.P.: The Cecil controversy certainly galvanised public opinion to the extent that US Fisheries & Wildlife banned imports of lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Tanzania. I don’t think this would have happened otherwise. In their ruling, USFWS also set out a new policy requiring range states to provide evidence that sport hunting is a net positive for conservation. I have yet to see any clear evidence on this point from either country. Under the current administration, imports are being decided on a “case by case basis” – I haven’t heard how many lion trophies have been imported from Tanzania or Zimbabwe in the past two years.
Success stories: Can you state unequivocally that trophy hunting of wild, free-roaming (unfenced) lions has ever helped to maintain or increase lion populations in any area/region? If so, please provide examples.
C.P.: Bubye Valley Conservancy and Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe both exist thanks to the funding generated by sport hunting. In both conservancies, lion numbers grew rapidly after they were adequately gazetted, and numbers remained close to the potential carrying capacity for lions in those habitats. It’s possible that a few other conservancies/hunting blocks have been similarly successful in other countries, but I haven’t seen clear evidence outside of these two sites.
One-product industry: It seems as if the trophy hunting industry in Tanzania has modelled and priced itself primarily based on the killing of wild lions and that the extirpation of their main commodity is leading to the collapse of the industry. Is that a fair reflection of the industry?
C.P.: Lion hunting offtakes don’t have to be so excessive as we found in Tanzania. With a well-enforced age minimum, the lions would be OK; Bubye and Save both show that it’s possible. The problem is one of economics. Most African governments have only received in the order of $10,000 per dead lion. This is ridiculously low. In the US, hunters may pay $100,000 to shoot a bighorn sheep. One would have thought that a lion would be worth at least ten times as much as a sheep. If hunters were to pay closer to a million dollars per lion, the industry would generate the funding necessary to protect lion habitat – which various other authors and I have estimated to be roughly $1,000/km2/year. A lion pride needs a lot of land, and the current pricing structure is far too low. The question, of course, then arises as to why lion trophies are so cheap — especially now that there may be fewer lions left in Africa than rhinos.
Fences: In your book, you touch on the need for fences in Tanzania, to keep humans and their livelihoods safe from animals, and vice versa. In South Africa, this is old news, of course, and the topic would not meet with much resistance. But in East Africa the concept of fencing in animals is controversial. Could you elaborate on that sensitive subject?
C.P.: Suffice it to say that fencing is now being used in far more countries than in the past. The need for fencing will continue to grow as the human population in Africa is expected to quadruple in the coming years. Rapid economic development in Africa will further lead to exploding demand for ever more livestock. Lions won’t have a chance over most of the continent if they aren’t safely separated from the growing human footprint. East African conservationists tend to be more idealistic than their South African counterparts, but local people are increasingly demanding to be heard — and they want to be safe from lions and protect their livestock. Of course, not every landscape can be fenced. As we saw decades ago in Botswana, poorly positioned fencing can destroy large-scale animal migrations. However, human activities are already so intensive in many parts of Africa that the wildlife is mostly already blocked off. Imagine having wildebeest pass through Nairobi or elephants in Kampala. So it would be a good idea if the conservationists started working with local authorities to decide how best to partition the land, and that will inevitably include fencing.
Nature versus commerce: ‘Nature’ tends to weed out weaker individuals, if only because those individuals are less likely to escape predators and more likely to die from disease. And yet, trophy hunting practises the opposite strategy – it removes the big and robust individuals. How can practising the opposite of what nature does ever be ‘sustainable’?
C.P.: With an age-minimum, hunters are not necessarily removing the best genes from the population; and every mature male gets to breed before being shot. I would recommend an age minimum for antelope, buffalo, elephant, and all carnivore species. In fact, South Africa also has an age minimum for leopards.
Where to now, for lion conservation? So many trophy hunting blocks in Tanzania have now been abandoned over the years by the industry, often with the excuse that trophy import bans have killed the industry, and so poachers have moved in to strip bare. Our observation is that most bans are relatively recent, and that over-exploitation over many years and lack of investment into conservation and community are the primary reasons for these vast areas being no longer attractive to the trophy hunting industry. Your thoughts on that topic, and suggestion about what to do with those former hunting areas?
C.P.: It’s very convenient for the hunting industry to blame restrictions that were, in fact, imposed because of the impacts of their past practices rather than to accept that they have long been part of the problem. Not only did they overhunt in much of Tanzania, but they also failed to generate the funding to protect the areas they were claiming to conserve. They were given dominion over the land at cut-rate prices, and they didn’t give back to some of the poorest countries and communities in the world. On the other hand, there’s still the problem of what to do with all those abandoned hunting blocks. The anti-hunting lobby has never found a way to pay for the conservation of those areas either. So if people are philosophically opposed to hunting, I ask you: how would you pay for it? Tanzania has something like 300,000 km2 of hunting blocks — can you raise the $300 million every single year that will be needed to protect this land? If you’ve got any good ideas, I’d love to hear from you.
Buy Craig Packer’s book: LIONS IN THE BALANCE: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns
Monsters take many forms: from man-eating lions to the people who hunt them, from armed robbers to that midnight knock at the door of a cheap hotel room in Dar es Salaam. And celebrated biologist Craig Packer has faced them all.
With Lions in the Balance, Packer takes us back into the complex, tooth-and-claw world of the African lion, offering revealing insights into both the lives of one of the most iconic and dangerous animals on earth and the very real risks of protecting them. Packer is sure to infuriate millionaires, politicians, aid agencies, and conservationists alike as he minces no words about the problems he encounters. But with a narrative stretching from far flung parts of Africa to the corridors of power in Washington, DC, and marked by Packer’s signature humor and incredible candor, Lions in the Balance is a tale of courage against impossible odds, a masterly blend of science, adventure, and storytelling, and an urgent call to action that will captivate a new generation of readers.
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