After visiting Kafue National Park in Zambia recently, Scott Ramsay focuses on the lions of that area. The massive park, which is bigger than our own Kruger National park, has a lion population of around 500 animals. With an increase in demand for lion byproducts in Asian medicines, conservation efforts are increasingly coming under the spotlight, too.
After I returned from Busanga Plains in Kafue National Park, as per my report in the November issue issue of Leisure Wheels, I caught up with lion researcher Dr Neil Midlane.
He has spent three field seasons there – from June 2010 to November 2012 – completing research for his PhD, entitled “The conservation status and dynamics of a protected African lion population in Kafue National Park”.
“At least 14 adult lions were observed with snares in northern Kafue during my research,” Neil told me. “These were part of the bycatch of the bushmeat poaching that goes on there. And we probably missed a lot of snared lions, because Kafue is so big and we couldn’t possibly cover all of it.”
Sadly, it seems as if the recent phenomena of demand for lion bones in traditional Asian medicine is now impacting Kafue’s lions.
“Tourist guides in the area reported lions caught in baited snares, which suggest that illegal hunters may intentionally be targeting lions as a result of growing Asian demand for lion bones.”
Neil’s research for his PhD showed that there are probably an estimated 500 lions over one year of age in all of Kafue and its surrounding game management areas, and about 200 lions in the 11 000 square kilometre northern section, where Busanga lies.
“Kafue would always have been an important place for lions. But no doubt the lion numbers would have been a lot higher in the past.”
South Africa’s Kruger National Park (which is a bit smaller than Kafue) has about 1 800 lions, although Neil points out that Kruger’s soils and habitat can support a higher prey density, and therefore more lions.
Even though northern Kafue has close to 1 000mm of rainfall (twice that of Kruger), the soils are generally less rich, and drain very quickly. Most of Kafue comprises miombo woodland, and doesn’t sustain high prey densities. Busanga’s well-watered grasslands are the anomaly, however, and attract far more antelope and buffalo than the south.
Neil’s research also showed that hunting quotas of lion in the surrounding nine hunting concessions were way too high, with 23 male lion on quota every year. The lack of controls and poor record keeping suggest that maybe even more males were shot every year.
“That figure was clearly unsustainable, and it’s probably why there were so few big male lion in northern Kafue.”
Recognising the potential damage to their tourism industry, Zambia banned hunting of all lion and leopard in 2013, citing a lack of information on predator populations in the country.
“While I was in Busanga, there were the usual accusations of hunting within the park boundary, and one of my collared male lions was shot in the second season I was there. That happens quite often, unfortunately.”
Neil’s research suggested that just five or six male lions should be hunted across all of Kafue’s game management areas every year. And as much as he dislikes the shooting of any male lions, Neil is pragmatic about the value of controlled and well-managed trophy hunting.
“As much as I hate the idea of trophy hunting, there doesn’t appear to be any other viable wildlife land use for much of Kafue’s game management areas. Unlike Busanga, which is very photogenic, large tracts of the miombo woodland in the surrounding areas doesn’t make for good photo safaris. There’s not nearly as much wildlife, and the tsetse flies are everywhere. So we either accept some controlled hunting, or those areas will be lost to farming, agriculture or other destructive development in the face of burdgeoning human populations.”
According to Neil’s research, already a quarter of the land in the game management areas has been lost to agriculture.
Neil adds that hunting quotas must be set with rigorous scientific research, and there needs to be stringent enforcement of the quotas and regulations.
“This is where the hunting industry so often falls short,” Neil says. “But for those people who are so vehemently opposed to hunting in any form, the only alternative to funding the conservation of some of these incredibly beautiful wild areas is significant financial support from wealthy countries and individual philanthropists.”
“As the largest protected area in the country, Kafue is Zambia’s crown jewel of parks. Yet it is severely underfunded, and the rangers and scouts are poorly equipped, poorly paid and are working in one of the most remote, and sometimes inhospitable wilderness areas in Africa. They do the best they can, but they need help. Kafue needs all the revenue and help it can get.”
While Kafue’s lion population is sizeable, it could become a recognized “lion stronghold”, defined as a park that protects at least 500 lion, and whose population is stable or increasing.
“Based on my research, and prey densities, I believe the park could probably hold as many as 1 000 lion, if it was managed and protected optimally, with all the required funding,” said Neil.
Africa’s lion population is currently estimated at no more than 30 000, and some experts consider it to be as low as 20 000.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, at the turn of the 20th century, lion occurred wherever suitable habitat was located,” Neil explained, “but today lion have lost approximately 75% of their historical African distribution.”
In just two decades, Africa’s wild lion population has halved. A burgeoning rural population continues to put pressure on natural habitat, especially outside of protected areas, where lions come into conflict with both humans and livestock. And it’s the lions that always have to give way to human interests. They are shot, snared or poisoned.
“Kafue is clearly an important conservation area for this iconic species. There are only six lion populations in Africa of 1 000 animals or more, and Kafue has the potential to be the seventh,” said Neil.
“Kafue will always remain with me,” Neil says. “It’s a vast, immensely beautiful, largely under-appreciated and utterly irreplaceable wilderness that deserves enormous support from the global conservation community.”
Love Wild Africa
Scott Ramsay is an adventurer, photographer and author, focusing on wild places and conservation in Africa. He is an ambassador for the Ford Wildlife Foundation and K-Way. Partners include Ford Ranger, Cape Union Mart, Goodyear Tyres, Escape Gear, Safari Centre Cape Town, National Luna, Tracks4Africa, Hetzner, Outdoor Photo and EeziAwn.