'International agreements necessary to save lions'

18 September 2017

The lion’s survival as a species is under threat. A new study shows that political cooperation is crucial in order to turn the tide. International treaties play an important role in this regard. International wildlife lawyer Arie Trouwborst (Vidi, Tilburg University) and a team of lawyers, biologists and social scientists investigated the international treaties which play a role in protecting the king of the animals.

Male lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo: Melissa LewisMale lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo: Melissa Lewis

Lions were once very common in Europe, although the last ones were hunted down over two millennia ago. Nowadays, many people believe that lions are common in Africa, but that has changed as well. In most countries where lions still occur in the wild, their numbers are rapidly dwindling. There are only around 20,000 left in Africa, plus a few hundred in India. If lions were people, all of them together would just fill the football stadium of Swansea City.

Researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit of the University of Oxford have spent years looking for the best solutions to halt the decline of lion populations. It was they who made Cecil the lion famous, fitting him with a transmitter and following his adventures on the Zimbabwean savannah. Some of these researchers were interested in the role of international cooperation in lion conservation. When they knocked on our door in Tilburg last year, my South African colleague Melissa Lewis and I were keen to collaborate.

Protected status helps

Our research demonstrates the importance of various existing treaties for the conservation of lions and their habitat. Examples are the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and the Ramsar Wetlands Convention. Although neither convention is specifically focused on lions, dozens of natural areas where lions still occur have received international protected status as World Heritage Sites or Wetlands of International Importance.

We investigated which areas these are, how the resident lions benefit (or could benefit) from  the treaties, and which other areas with lions could profit from such an international status. To illustrate: the planned construction of a huge motorway through the Serengeti savannah was recently prohibited by an international tribunal, with the judges specifically citing the area’s World Heritage status. An example of a candidate site for international protection is Ruaha in Tanzania – not as famous as Serengeti or Kruger, but hosting one of the largest remaining lion populations.

Trophy hunting or poaching

Trade in lion bones (for the traditional Chinese medicine market) and hunting trophies is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Trophy hunting is a sensitive topic. Two years ago, when an American dentist ended the life of Cecil the lion, the hunter met with a massive on-line lynching by social media. Many concerned citizens in the US and Europe called on governments to ban the import of hunting trophies.

However, such measures could prove counter-productive for the future of the lion. Trophy hunting brings in a lot of money for local human populations, usually considerably more than photo tourism. If this source of revenue is cut off, there is little incentive for the generally poor rural people to continue tolerating the threat that lions pose to their livestock and their own safety. There is a strong likelihood that the lions would be poached and their habitat converted into agricultural land. It may therefore be better to make imports of lion trophies subject to conditions promoting sustainable hunting practices, than to ban trophies outright. CITES provides the tools for such a tailored approach.

Overarching framework needed

Our research shows that there is still significant room for improvement in the practical application of treaty obligations. Nevertheless, it is clearly worthwhile investing in such improvements, and we especially advocate measures that actively involve the human population of areas that are home to lions. The article makes specific recommendations to increase the contribution that international law makes to the lion’s survival. Including lions on the lists of species covered by the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species is one of these recommendations.

A proposal to bring lions within the scope of the Convention will be on the agenda of the forthcoming meeting of Parties to be held in the Philippines in October. Including this species under the Bonn Convention would move lion conservation higher up the international agenda. Even more importantly, the Convention can provide a framework for coordinating and supporting conservation measures in the twenty-five countries where lions still occur.

Currently, there are treaties to protect important wetlands and world heritage sites, a treaty regulating trade, and various regional nature conservation treaties, but there is no overarching framework especially focused on the lion. There appears to be a unique potential role here for the Bonn Convention. Our article has now been introduced by the Secretariat of the Convention as an official document for next month’s conference. The delegates representing the 124 Parties will thus be able to take note of our analysis before deciding on the Convention’s future role in lion conservation.

Further information

Arie Trouwborst, Melissa Lewis, et al., International law and lions (Panthera leo): understanding and improving the contribution of wildlife treaties to the conservation and sustainable use of an iconic carnivore, Nature Conservation 21: 83-128 (13 Sep 2017). DOI: 10.3897/natureconservation.21.13690

The lion study follows on from the Ius Carnivoris project, which focuses mainly on wolves, bears and other large predators in Europe. One of the recommendations made when the project was awarded funding was to find comparisons with the protection of predators outside Europe. That was done in this study.

Source: Nemo Kennislink

Source: Nemo Kennislink