Circle of Life

Namibia is trying to save its lions by charging trophy fees to kill them.
Aaron Ansarov/Aurora Images

We were crossing on foot through a scrubby patch of African wilderness when the guide casually noted that all the usual prey animals seemed to have gone elsewhere, a hint of lions in the neighborhood. This particular neighborhood, he added informatively, was home to a pride known for being “ballsy”—they “don’t run away from people, the way lions usually do.”

The standard protocol, when hikers and lions bump into each other in the African bush, is for the lions to run, with the dominant male lion fleeing first. (That business about noble lion kings sacrificing themselves for family turns out to be one of the bigger, ballsier lies about the male gender.) The females may stick around briefly, to snarl and show their teeth while the cubs also exit. Sometimes, a lioness will make a stiff-legged charge, skidding to a stop close enough to scatter sand on your shoes. And that’s generally as bad as it gets (though alternate endings are always possible). “Never run,” the guide advised. “Unless I tell you to.”

That day, sadly or otherwise, our lions did not rouse themselves, and I was reduced to the tourist pastime of watching lions during an open-vehicle game drive. Lumbering diesels do not make the lions skittish, oddly. They lift their heads as if to say, “Oh, those wankers,” then flop back down in the dust and fall asleep.

What brought me on my visit early this year to South Africa and Namibia was the continuing controversy over the idea of using trophy hunting as a tool for lion conservation. The lion population in Africa has declined by at least a third over the past 20 years, due to loss of habitat, dwindling prey populations, disease, killings by livestock farmers, and badly managed trophy-hunting programs. Hence, animal-welfare groups petitioned the U.S. Department of the Interior last March to classify lions as endangered, a move that, given the big role of U.S. hunters, would effectively end trophy hunting of the species.

I’m not a hunter, and turning lions into trophies has always struck me as a strange enterprise. But I was inclined to approve of it, in part because of the unequal character of such encounters—we are on foot, in their territory, with animals that can easily kill us.

The real appeal of the idea, though, is that hunters are inexplicably willing to pay a trophy fee of roughly $10,000 for a lion—plus an equal or greater amount for the services of a professional hunting guide and assorted fees for kudu, springbok, and other species killed along the way. Much of that money goes into the local community, and in theory, it makes predator-hating livestock farmers more willing to tolerate big, scary animals outside their gates.

The idea is especially attractive in Namibia, an arid coastal nation with just 2.1 million people spread through an area more than twice that of California. Over the past dozen years, Namibia has developed a remarkable system in which community conservancies own their wildlife and decide how to benefit from it. They typically form joint ventures with outside companies to develop safari lodges for camera tourists, but they also set aside separate patches of wilderness for trophy hunters; the hunting concessions are quicker to take off, and provide communities with proof in cash and jobs that wildlife can be valuable. The result is that populations of most species are now booming there, and Namibia is the only country in Africa with an expanding, free-roaming population of lions.

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