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There Is a Way to Make Lion Hunting Good for Lions

A contentious issue may have a bright side

Last month, Melissa Bachman—a TV producer and hunterposted a photo of herself smiling over a lion she had killed on a hunt in South Africa, and the internet erupted with criticism. Thousands of outraged people subsequently signed a petition asking the South African government to ban Bachman from entering the country again. Her actions, however, were completely legal.

Lion trophy hunting is a contentious issue in Africa. Nine of the 28 lion-range countries in Africa permit hunts, and each between 244 and 665 male lions are legally killed. Most of the hunters are wealthy North Americans or Europeans. Many non-hunters assume no good can come from killing wildlife. But on the ground, it's a little bit more complicated.

According to a recent paper, a single hunt can cost $60,000 to $125,000 per lion. That money can be a boon to local communities--some of which gain 20 to 65 percent of proceeds from hunts--and can be used to support conservation efforts. Tanzania reports that around $25 million is generated in revenue each year from trophy hunts in the country. All of that money also creates a strong incentive to protect lion populations. The land used for hunting also plays an important role: After Kenya banned sports hunting in 1977, the large hunting buffer zones that once surrounded national parks were converted for agriculture and livestock grazing. After that, overall wildlife populations declined between 60 to 70 percent. "While it is not possible to determine whether, or to what extent, the trophy hunting ban contributed to negative wildlife population trends, the prohibition certainly failed to improve the conservation status of wildlife (including lions) in Kenya," the authors write. 

Lion numbers have declined by around 80 percent in recent years, and conservationists know that unsustainable levels of trophy hunting are partly to blame. But according to new research, lion hunts can be carried out in a conservation-friendly way. The key is for wildlife managers to take the time to identify that sweet spot of sustainability and then strictly stick to that limit.

As a rule, managers don't know how many lions live in their area. Without knowing how many lions are around, it's impossible to set responsible caps on the number of lions killed. To get around this, researchers built an algorithm that estimates an area's lion population based on the average time it takes to locate and shoot an adult male lion. With this new method in hand, they then used computer models to project the impacts on lion populations were this algorithm to be introduced in the field. They found, for example, that, in a lion-depleted area that started out with 38 male lions, limiting the number of lions killed each year to 15 would allow the number of male lions to increase to 100 individuals over the span of 30 years. As numbers grew, the quota for trophy hunts in this population could also increase, from 15 to 22 animals.

Now, the team's task is to convince governments and managers to adopt the method. Given the amount of money managers and countries stand to gain in the long term, the team thinks that the method has a good chance of gaining support.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Truth About Lions 
Lions Are Disappearing from Africa 

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