By Denis Dilba
Derek Hurt and his trophy hunter client keep still as the lion lifts its nose into the air. The animal seems aware that danger is near. For a week now, the two have been pursuing the giant cat through the Miombo forests of West Tanzania. They've followed the lion's tracks, they've found fresh prey it has left behind and they've heard its roar at night.
But each time they get close, the seven-year-old male has somehow managed to escape his hunters. Now the men are crouching behind a thorn bush. Hurt takes one last look into his binoculars. After locating the lion's nose and mane, he gives his client a signal. As the majestic predator collapses, Derek Hurt becomes entitled to his $60,000 fee.
Big game hunters like Hurt call such pursuits "the future of hunting" -- and they may very well be right. They are part of a controversial new strategy to protect the African lion that was approved in Johannesburg at the East and Southern African Lion Conservation Workshop last week. The group is part of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) -- the world's largest network of animal protection organizations.
The plan, which is aimed at securing the survival of the African lion, calls for limited hunting of the animals in exchange for hefty trophy fees -- money which would then be used to fund conservation programs for the "King of Beasts." The lion, after all, is disappearing as quickly as his habitat. Whereas population estimates in the 1970s ranged as high as 200,000 animals, two recent studies assume a current population of between 23,000 and 39,000 on the entire continent of Africa. Populations in western and central Africa are especially endangered; both are cut off from other lion habitats and both populations are rapidly declining.
"The primary problem is the farmers," explains Kristin Nowell, a member of IUCN's Cat Specialist Group. "Out of fear for their herds, they shoot or poison the lions."
The conservationists from the IUCN are now betting on a completely different strategy. They even want to do away with hunting limits, which have until now been determined by each country on its own. "If one only shoots male lions that are older than six, there's no longer a need for a limit," says Nowell. "The population will regulate itself."
Nowell's calculation isn't difficult to follow. When a pride of lions loses its leader -- the so-called "king" -- his successor often kills all of his young offspring in order to pair with the lionesses as quickly as possible. The offspring of six-year-old lion kings, however, are generally already a year old. The danger of infanticide is greatly reduced.
And how does one determine the age of a male lion? Easy, say IUCN biologists. The size of his mane offers a clear indication, as does his bearing. The best clue, though, is the color of his nose: If dark pigment covers more that 60 percent of it, then the lion is at least six-years-old.
There are plans to funnel the revenue generated by sustainable lion hunting directly to the places where the threat against the lions is greatest: areas where there are few wild animals for the lions to prey upon and where they have been attacking livestock, exposing themselves to angry farmers who have no qualms about killing them.
Nowell suggests that an economical way of improving the cohabitation of lions and farmers could, for example, be to use some of the money to improve livestock enclosures. Lions that prowl around the thorn bush enclosures at night send the livestock into such a panic that they break the crudely built gates, inadvertently becoming easy prey for the lions. Enclosures with protective banks of stone, solid fencing and guard dogs could make the livestock less susceptible to attacks by lions, says Nowell.
But Daniela Freyer of Pro Wildlife, a conservation organization, is skeptical of the strategy. "In theory better regulation is a good approach," she argues, "but in practice, who is going to control the implementation?" The resources available to nature conservation officials in many countries are sparse to begin with and they have enough problems just trying do deal with their current workload. New responsibilities for hunting programs would merely exacerbate them. "Besides, the solution is entirely optional and in no way obligatory," she says.
Criticism or not, conservationists will soon be accompanying hunters in Tanzania, Mozambique and Botswana as the wealthy thrill-seekers stalk their mane-wearing prey.
In the end, however, the lions may find a way to secure their own survival. Along the Linyanti River in Botswana, for example, they appear to have developed their own strategy for avoiding strife with the farmers: they have taken to hunting hippos.
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