Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Spears, Shotguns, and Open Spaces: All Equally Dangerous for Lions?

Well, Kenya did it, guys! The election went over without a hitch (or at least with only minor hitches) and Uhuru Kenyatta, 51-year-old son of Jomo Kenyatta, is the early victor.

Uhuru Kenyatta, from his website.
See? I told you the BBC was in a tizzy over nothing.

So what does this mean for me?

Well, it means that all final changes to my travel itinerary have been made, my ticket's been bought, and I'll be leaving the US and heading to Africa (via England) in exactly 8 days.

I'll be stopping over in England to present my work at the Student Conference on Conservation Science, hosted at Cambridge University. Then I'll be headed off to visit friends & researchers at Oxford University, before returning to London to finish any last-minute preparations for Nairobi.

And not a moment too soon, it seems, as a couple of pivotal things have happened in lion news of late.

What's up with Lions?

A lot! First, back in December, a group of researchers based at Duke University (ahem) published a Very Important Paper that detailed exactly how much lion populations have declined over the past 50 years, and how fast. Spoiler Alert: The answers are 'way too much' and 'way too fast', respectively.

Lion populations have declined from 100,000+ fifty years ago to just 30,000 today. National Geographic has a really lovely animation that illustrates this.

Lion Countries & Population Range in the 1800s 
Lion Countries & Population Range Today 
Lion Countries & Population Range Tomorrow?

The new data publicized by that paper helped, in part, to spur the Born Free Foundation to take action in January to petition the United States Fish & Wildlife Service to list the African Lion under the Endangered Species Act.

"Well, that's nonsense," you might say to yourself (because you're a skeptic and you like to jump to conclusions), "There are no African lions in the United States."

While we obviously have no wild population, African lion parts are a surprisingly popular trade here (more than 60% of lion trophies exported from Africa were U.S.-bound), meant to be wall-hanging byproducts of eager hunters' (or wannabe hunters') trips abroad. While I have no problem with sustainable fair chase hunting, I do have a problem with recklessly driving a species to extinction.
Map of lion range declines, 1909 - 2009, from Panthera's State of the Lion report.

So since all those happy tourists in the Tilley hats and rented jeeps are funding an unsustainable industry that contributes to the loss of the species, something must be done. Listing the lion would make it harder to ship one's ill-gotten trophy gains back into the U.S. and would hopefully cut down on the industry's appeal.

Then this week brought more lion news out of Tanzania, where Craig Packer, Professor at the University of Minnesota led a group which published the bold assertion that lions are better off in fences than in open space landscapes.

Photo by Luke Hunter/Panthera, from the original Science NOW article

Mmm, fences. Our dear old friend.

Guys, fences can be great. Really great! Sometimes they do exactly what they're supposed to do: keep animals safe from human activity.

And sometimes they do this:

From Mbaiwa & Mbaiwa's 2012 paper in the International Journal of Wilderness

Yes, conservation is expensive. Yes, human-wildlife conflict with lions is incredibly difficult to resolve. No, I don't want people losing their livestock or their lives. Yes, I understand the value of occasional fencing, particularly for veterinary or conservation purposes. And no, I don't think fences are the answer to all our problems.

Fences limit the ability of ranging carnivores to disperse, restrict genetic variability over time, and may have a host of other unintended effects on a population -- and that's before we even get to the landscape-level problems (e.g. vegetation changes, herbivore population restriction, impacts on other species) that large-scale fencing can cause.

There's also a social-psychological effect - a fence shuts people out, something we can't afford to do in wildlife conservation.

And beyond this, there can be significant socioeconomic impacts to human populations as a result of changes in local biodiversity, reduction in ecosystem services previously provided by free-ranging wildlife, and loss of access to fenced areas.

When these kinds of impacts are known, considered, and accepted - and the alternative is the complete extinction of a population or the utter decimation of an ecosystem - then fencing might indeed be the go-to option. I'm happy to get behind the judicious use of fences in certain areas with certain needs. But I'm betting that those certain areas and certain needs make up a very small percentage of the landscape in Africa. That means that there's still a big, bad world out there for people and wildlife, and we need to keep looking for more solutions.


  1. Brilliantly written. I am eager to follow the debate this paper will generate!

  2. Thanks, Al. You make such complex issues approachable. Great read.

  3. When I went to South Africa a few years ago I was surprised to see, out in the bush, absolutely nothing. While there were free ranging animals, the vast majority could only be found in national parks or private ranches. In both cases these areas were fenced in. The occasional animal could get out, though not as often as poachers would get in, and in order to keep the genetic diversity from hitting a bottle neck sometimes individuals or groups had to be captured, transported, and swapped out into other parks/ranches. I agree fences can be beneficial. I wrote a few blog posts about the positives and negatives last year. Fences have saved some species. On the other hand, they're also why there is an overpopulation of elephants in Kruger National Park.

    I don't think just sticking wild animals behind fences is the answer. It might prevent them from taking cattle, for instance, but it doesn't prevent habitat destruction, poaching, or poverty. I’m looking forward to reading more about your project, to see if these fences protect the cattle, thereby the lions. If these fences are put up and prove successful in protecting these predators, I’d be interested to learn later on many are put up and how large an area is fenced. This can hinder migration or block habitat for wild species, as you mentioned. It’s always a balancing act and it’s important for us as conservationists to find that balance. Not always easy!