Circle of Life

Namibia is trying to save its lions by charging trophy fees to kill them.

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.

Wildlife groups (that is, those devoted to conserving nature in the wild) were conspicuously missing from the petition. Not that they were writing love letters about lion hunters, either. Stalking a lion is “an art form,” said one tourism manager. But baiting lions—luring them with a game animal’s carcass—is more common, and “the lion comes to you. What’s difficult about that?” Lion hunters, who tend to be suckers for male-gender mythology, also typically target the wrong animals. For their money, they want big males with manes, not females or the scrawny subadults that anger farmers by killing livestock.

Harvesting big males might be sustainable, says Craig Packer, who studies lion ecology in Tanzania, but only at a rate that would yield far less in trophy fees—one lion per 1,000 square kilometers in rich habitat. Hunters in Tanzania take up to 10 times that number, shooting their way down the age cohorts, Packer tells me, so that the only lions left out there “with a mane and testicles are youngsters.” A male lion needs six years to establish himself in a pride and rear a new generation. Overhunting leads to continual turnover in the pride: when a new male takes the throne, he tends to kill the old crop of cubs so he can father his own. But when I asked if he would support a ban on trophy hunting, even Packer demurred.

“It won’t do the lions any good,” said Garth Owen-Smith, Namibia’s leading conservationist. “It will mean that lions have no value to areas where stock farmers live. Lions will have no future except to be shot.” Every lion in a conservancy costs about $12 a day in lost livestock and wildlife, added Greg Stuart-Hill, a senior conservation planner for the World Wildlife Fund, and in areas where people live on $1 a day, “we need to give every incentive in the world to get them to tolerate these predators.”

Tourists would no doubt be horrified by the notion that trophy fees from hunters are one reason lions, leopards, and other predators are still out there for them to admire. But they themselves are guilty of indulging in a double standard. They object strenuously to any hint of hunting—and then, said one baffled tourism executive, “they tuck into a gemsbok steak that evening, without a pause.” One alternative that WWF hopes to test is getting tourists to behave like hunters and pay a sort of trophy-photography fee—say, an extra $10 for each sighting—to go into a special fund for lion conservation.

Turning the unfenced wilderness of Namibia into a pay-per-view world might sound unduly venal, but it may be the price we need to pay to preserve one of the last places in Africa where lions still roam free.