Poorest of People Caught in Anti-Hunting Crossfire

In March 2011, a coalition of animal welfare groups opposed to the hunting of African lions petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for protection of this lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act. FWS responded this week by proposing to list African lions as “threatened” – not the “endangered” status sought by the groups. Still, the groups claim success. It is evident that the sought-after listing is more about stopping the hunting of African lions and less about lion conservation after all.

Unfortunately those who stand to be most impacted by the listing aren’t rich American hunters seeking a trophy, but the some of the poorest people on the planet who live with Africa’s 30,000-40,000 lions on a daily basis. Since this is a proposal for animal conservation, the human equation is largely ignored – with the exception that the proposal notes the continued increase in Africa’s human population further endangers these iconic cats.

Three major factors largely ignored in the discussion are:

• African people have to eat to survive;

• African people rely on their close association with their livestock and wild animals to feed their families;

• African lions kill not only thousands of livestock, but hundreds of African people, each and every year.

Instead, headlines in American media report of the “Last-Ditch Effort to Save Remaining African Lions” and the need for action “Protecting the African Lion From Trophy Hunters.”

Here’s a list of the groups authoring the petition for endangered status:

• International Fund for Animal Welfare,

• Humane Society of the United States

• Humane Society International,

• Born Free Foundation/Born Free USA

• Defenders of Wildlife, and the

• Fund for Animals.

These are not organizations devoted to spending a large portion of their revenues on the ground in Africa to alleviate conflicts between humans and lions. A major motivation for the proposal is the desire to stop trophy hunting of African lions, which the FWS proposal will not do. But what the FWS proposal may do is further jeopardize the already dire future of the poorest residents of Africa.

Single-species protection efforts rarely (if ever) address the core issues of large carnivore conservation – human wellbeing, and in the case of Africa, alleviation of poverty. “The impact of conservation policies on human wellbeing is critical to the integration of poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation,” according to a 2012 paper in Biological Conservation. “Conservation and provision of livelihoods should therefore go hand-in-hand.”

Elephants in India kill people every day. African lions kill more than 100 people each year in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique alone. People killed in these human-wildlife conflicts are generally from “the weaker socioeconomic sections of society” – the rural poor.

Conservation policies often have the heaviest impacts on the poorest of people, and when there are human-wildlife conflicts such as loss of one cow, it aggravates a family’s existing poverty. Studies have shown that crop-raiding by wild animals in Africa frequently results in a reduction of the overall food supply available to a family. That often means that mothers will eat less to provide nourishment for their children, resulting in her diminished health. Family members become anemic, and people die from lack of sufficient nutrition. If a family member is attacked and killed by a wild animal, and that person is an adult wage-earner, this further threatens the entire family’s livelihood, well being, and potential survival.

In Africa, if an adult male is lucky enough to have an outside job that generates income in a subsistence-based economy, that male wage-earner will spend his days at a paying job, and stand guard over his crops or livestock at night. That means that daytime guarding is conducted by children who are therefore not attending school to better their futures. Many of these daytime guards are killed by predators that hunt during daylight hours: African lions.

To some, the impact of human-wildlife conflicts may seem small on a national or global scale, but “but they give rise to exponentially high costs for the affected individuals and families, many of whom are amongst the least privileged people in the world,” according to the Biological Conservation paper.

The listing of a species as threatened or endangered often leads to the setting aside of more lands to protect that species. When more land is set aside for wildlife conservation, traditional human use such as hunting and livestock grazing are forbidden or restricted. Subsistence livestock producers, or people who depend on bushmeat for nutrition, thus lose use of traditional resources and land. This global trend has resulted in a new class of people aptly termed Conservation Refugees. Google it.

The reliance on bushmeat in Africa includes everything from rats to elephants, and from subsistence use, to providing meat for the urban marketplace. A paper in a 2006 issue of Conservation Biology (“Hunting for Consensus: Reconciling Bushmeat Harvest, Conservation and Development Policy in West and Central Africa”) notes: “Where bushmeat markets are booming, poor rural communities are often mining their wildlife resources to subsidize the protein consumption costs of urban families. The failure of development to provide growing urban populations with secure livelihoods and sustainable sources of animal protein are resulting in overharvesting of wildlife in rural areas and decreased livelihood security of poor rural families who are dependent on a dwindling wildlife resource. Bushmeat harvest is more a survival strategy than a development strategy. The places where species are threatened pinpoint places where development policies have failed, and the future of the rural poor is likely to be threatened as well.”

Those advocating for switching subsistence economies toward ecotourism at least acknowledge the need for human economic viability, but have failed to find an alternative that actually works. Ecotourism is often touted as alternative, but few people impacted by wildlife conflicts receive benefit from such schemes. In one recent study in Africa, only 17% of families were associated with ecotourism, but 65% lost livestock to lions. Other programs offer compensation for certain (proven) losses, but the time and effort required to seek such compensation – especially in poor countries where fraud is rampant – is often too much for the rural poor. Poor and illiterate people lacking social capital are not likely to seek compensation for their losses to wild animals.

We all want African lions to thrive well in the long term. But unless we actually begin to address the core issues involved in human-wildlife conflicts, we’ll adopt policies much as this one, meant to harm rich American hunters traveling to do something many find distasteful (hunting lions as trophies), but the resulting impact may be the death of more of Africa’s poorest people. Until we adopt a new approach, the cost of conservation will continue to be disproportionately high for rural people to bear. For a moral people, the loss of human life should be at least as important as wildlife conservation.