Friday, August 25, 2006

Fundis comment on the Proposed “Walking with Lions” Project

24 August 2006

Members of the international scientific community voice their serious concerns and strong opposition to the “Walking with Lions” tourist attraction currently being proposed by African Encounters and Safari par Excellence in Zambia. “Walking with Lions” is a purely commercial enterprise. The purported conservation value of a captive breeding and release program for lions has not been demonstrated. Indeed, many aspects of the proposed program appear ill conceived.

For example, hand rearing of lion cubs will ensure that these animals are imprinted to humans, and that they will thereafter lack natural avoidance behaviors. Teaching hand reared cubs to hunt as sub-adults will not decrease their dependence on humans, nor will it alter their imprinted behaviors. Indeed, semi-tame lions may be as dangerous as wild lions. Recently (August, 2006) in South Africa, three 2½ year-old lions escaped from a game farm and killed two workers. The lions were obtained as cubs and raised by hand. In Tanzania, wild lions kill nearly one hundred people each year, the majority of them villagers. Alteration of lion behavior through captive breeding, hand rearing, and release of semi-tame animals or their habituated offspring is both dangerous and irresponsible when considering the safety and welfare of humans and their livestock in Zambia.

“Walking with Lions” will require a constant supply of cubs. The possibility that this program would result in overbreeding of lions and subsequent development of a canned hunting industry in Zambia, or trade in surplus lions to canned hunting interests in other countries cannot be ignored. Fair hunting practices of wild lions are paramount to Zambia’s commercial hunting industry. For Zambia to associate itself in any way – either real or perceived – with canned hunting of lions could have far-reaching negative impacts on this industry. Currently, Zambia is moving towards ensuring the long-term protection and survival of its lion populations by supporting field research that examines distribution and abundance of lions countrywide, and a genetic assessment of lion subpopulations. It is also actively seeking to establish sustainable quotas through development and implementation of an age-based trophy selection program.

The claim that releasing captive bred lions into national parks and wild areas will serve any conservation purpose by augmenting lion numbers is wholly unsubstantiated. Further, it fails to take into account the genetic structure of lion subpopulations in Zambia. Far from proving advantageous, the released animals may, in fact, introduce deleterious genes or diseases into Zambia’s established wild lion populations, or otherwise alter the local adaptations of the naturally occurring genetic stocks.

Given reasonable protection from excessive mortality and sufficient food resources (e.g., game species), wild lions have the capacity to naturally repopulate a depleted area. In addition to conserving local genetic adaptations, the advantages of natural recovery versus introductions include greater stability to pride structure and movements, and greater predictability as to distance and direction of dispersers. Moreover, a naturally recovering predator population will exist at a density that is appropriate for both game populations and available habitat, thereby reducing the risk of conflict with humans and livestock.

It is emphasized here that “Walking with Lions” has no conservation value. If African Encounters and Safari par Excellence’s desire to assist with conservation of African lions is sincere, they will devote themselves to supporting established programs and organizations that are working towards the restoration and protection of Zambia’s wild lands and animals, and seek to educate their clientele in a similarly responsible fashion.

Dr. Paula A. White, Director, Zambia Lion Project
Center for Tropical Research, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Dr. Craig Packer, Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
University of Minnesota, USA

Dr. Luke Hunter, Director, Great Cats Program
Wildlife Conservation Society, New York, USA