Over the last couple of months there has been a surge in awareness of lion endangerment, culminating in the first ever World Lion Day, which was commemorated on 10th August 2013. Global attention has been brought to their devastating numbers, which have tumbled from an estimated 200 000 in 1975 to 23 000 in 2004. Dereck Joubert, famed National Geographic filmmaker and founder of Great Plains Conservation, has allocated a 5 – 8% decline per year based on the evidence presented over the last 50 years and would, “at the very best, give 20 000 today”. David Bristow, author of Africa’s Finest and avid environmentalist, commented on the issue of lion population decline, saying, “If you plot the graph, we are on the steep ski slope towards extinction in the wilds.”
If you have been following our blog, you will have read recent posts that have focused on the various reasons for why we are losing the African lion to the point where Panthera leo is predicted to be extinct by the year 2020. Trophy hunting is systematically destroying magnificent male lions by keeping the market open for mounted heads and skin carpets; human encroachment has led to the loss of 75% of the African savannah – an area once dedicated to the striding territory of the lion; and human-lion conflict has devastated both rural communities and local lion populations. These three top-rated reasons for why we are sitting with 10% of the lion population that once inhabited Africa are directly attributable to humans and exponential, unstoppable growth of our populations. Concluding the four most disparaging factors affecting the species, and possibly the most disturbing of all, is the money-hungry trading in lions.
Bones, skin, skulls, claws and flesh are sought after in specific parts of the world, tending to a variety of man’s greedy desires. In China, ‘tiger wine’ is falsely believed to cure ailments like rheumatism, ulcers, sterility and cancer; a traditional ‘muti’ that has absolutely no medical composition. Unfortunately, the unrelenting market turns a blind eye in favour of heavily jingling pockets and our lions are hunted, shot, snared and poisoned for their skeletons, which identically match those of Asia’s precious tigers. These Big Cat corpses fetch big cash for the suppliers, who are often self-serving South African farmers running businesses in the lion hunting industry.
Dereck had the following to say in a recent interview with The Periscope:
“South Africa opened up trade in lion bones a few years ago (largely from the canned lion industry); in four years this industry has doubled and is currently exporting 1,000 skeletons a year to the East for bogus medicinal uses. This is also impacting on the tiger population as the increase in lion bone trade is creating a grey area in the market with similar shape and size bones … Of the 20,000 lions we have left today only about 3,000 are males, and CITES allows 600 a year to be hunted. This falls into the ‘greed’ category. Ignorance accounts for the bone trade consumption as well as the rapid destruction of wild habitat by poor farming slash and burn habits.”
The USA is the biggest buyer when it comes to trophy hunting, where the barbaric desire to hang a shaggy head on one’s walls and dress one’s floors with the peeled hide of this great animal, drives rifles into Africa and devastatingly contributes to the death of the species. Skulls, claws and teeth decorate ornamental mantel pieces, placed on display as a diminished representation of a would-be African leader. As if lions hadn’t been sufficiently plucked to pieces, America has taken their dealing in these products a step further, and citizens of the United States can now expect to receive a serving of carnivore meat on their dinner plates. Tacos and burgers have been expensively filled with the ground mince of lion, which, above anything else, should not be considered as safe for consumption. I approached Dereck Joubert on the matter, and this is what he had to say:
“People will get ill, and the chefs handling the meat will, unless very careful. Generally, in most diets and according to most nutritionists, eating limited meat is best for you anyway, but eating fellow carnivores is damned tricky. We don’t do that in the wild and very few species do. Hyenas eat anything and snakes do eat other predators, as do crocs, but many a lion casts aside a hyena, cheetah, leopard or wild dog they have killed.”
It is clear that the moral issue of consuming African lion meat in a Mexican speciality dish needs to be mentioned, for surely, if these moral implications were understood, there would be no such item on any menu? David Bristow expressed his own exasperation at the matter:
“Eating lions nutritionally and eating lions morally are not the same thing. The one will not make you sick, the other is sick. There are corrupt societies, and portions of societies. Chinese society is morally bankrupt from a modern, Western perspective – they pretty much do not give a sh*t about any living thing other than other Chinese, and then, not all of them. Affluent America, or parts thereof, are equally morally corrupt. It’s a disease called afluenza.”
The demand from Southeast Asia, one of the world’s greatest economic powers, is where conservation efforts need to be directed. Including this mass market in educational conservation could possibly create the change we so desperately need. Without extinguishing the Asian demand, lions will continually be ground up in tonics, just like tigers before them. Adam Cruise, author of In Search of Solitude and impassioned environmentalist, expressed the following as the most dangerous force facing lions today:
“The spectre from the East. It needs to be effectively and urgently dealt with, as it is by far the greatest threat. The sheer size of the demand, which if remains unchecked, will see the extinction of wild lions by 2020. Africans have been killing lions for centuries for various reasons with little impact (until recently that is), but it does not match the scale of the Asian demand.”
Dereck mentioned to me, in addition to his concern about trophy hunting and human-lion conflict, the sheer danger presented by lion product trade:
“A new threat is the lion bone trade that we are lobbying against. Now this has created another grey zone, but not just for lions. Poachers and traders for tiger bone, all illegal, now have a small window to say they are trading in legal South African lion bones, and as a result, poaching is on the increase.”
Solutions are what we need. Given the great insight provided by Adam, David and Dereck, we are made aware of how influential the Asian and American markets are and how dangerous their power is. We are at risk of losing lions entirely and with the existence of possible solutions, the lack of action is a measure of how terrifyingly skewed authority priorities are. Adam explains:
“[Governments] in turn need to see the urgency and danger of the scourge. Only governments, both individually, in partnership with other governments and collectively, as a global body, can effectively implement the necessary measures to protect the lions. This can be done by implementing stricter measures to prevent the trade in animal products as well as deploying the necessary personnel (the army?) to protect the animals in question.”
Dereck highlighted some areas in which he has called for action and emphasises the importance of funding for action-orientated organisations, such as his very own Big Cats Initiative:
“There are other things people can do. Follow us on Facebook – there are occasionally calls to action. I recently shut down a restaurant in [New York] by asking people to call and protest their use of lion meat. There is a petition to ask the US government to list lions as endangered … There is always something. However, with a US$19 Billion a year trade in illegal animals, we aren’t going to win this war unless we are well funded. I am calling for a global fund to fight poaching for example, which unless we do, we will lose all our wildlife within a few decades.”
I read recently a line written by Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, and its simplicity shone brightly amongst the overwhelming hype of World Lion Day. It said, “If we cannot save the lion, no other species stands a chance.” Such truth in that what man has voluntarily labelled as pride, bravery, respect and power, is a creature we are letting slip into an existence of bogus tonics and burger patties, before its ultimate extinction. What good can we possibly do for other, less symbolic species that so rely on us for protection?