23 January 2014

The Extinction of the West African Lion: Whose Responsibility?

Figure 2. Lion status in West African protected areas within lion range. In: Henschel P, Coad L, Burton C, Chataigner B, Dunn A, et al. (2014) The Lion in West Africa Is Critically Endangered. PLOS ONE 9(1): e83500. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083500

Lion status in West African protected areas within lion range.
© P. Henschel, L. Coad, C. Burton, B. Chataigner, A. Dunn et al. (see footnote).

A recently published study showed that the lion in West Africa is now critically endangered and faces extinction. From one angle, this would be just one of the large (though unknown) number of species that has previously faced extinction or has even become extinct. But the risk of extinction of some species give more reason for pause than others. Surely the lion – a cultural icon for cultures across the world since time immemorial – deserves a moment of reflection.

The cited study describes how the lion was once the most successful large carnivore. Its range extended from South Africa, across Eurasia, and into the southern United States. Today, the lion’s range is restricted to Africa, with a population of the Asiatic sub-species in India. Lions in Africa have lost 75 percent of their range in the last 100 years.

In West Africa, the situation is particularly critical. The West African lions, a population with unique genetic and conservation value, now has a declining population of less than 250 mature individuals, spread over five states: Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.[1]

The causes of decline are manifold, including large-scale habitat conversion, prey base depletion through unsustainable hunting, trophy hunting and the killing of lions due to perceived or real human-lion conflicts.

Whether the lion can be saved from extinction in West Africa is doubtful given demographic pressures, lack of popular support in those areas that matter and lack of resources.

Despite all moral allure that has been ascribed to it, international law has very little to offer for those who seek to prevent the extinction of the lion. The moralisation of international law above all is humanisation – no place here for moral concerns over other big species. Nonetheless, there are three instruments that one could rely on.

One is the Biodiversity Convention. Now more than two decades old, this remains a remarkable piece of international legislation – precisely because it transcends the human dimension of international law. It is a precious framework for international governance and development of policy and possible future laws. But as it is, it does not contain provisions that actually curtail a state from letting the human-lion conflict end in an absolute triumph for the former.

The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has more teeth. Trophy hunting is still a popular pastime for the rich that depends, for its allure, on subsequent trading to places where others can marvel about the remains of the animals. CITES lists the African lion on Appendix II, implying that trade requires permits, which relevant authorities should only grant if they are satisfied that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. CITES could help even more if it is recognised, as the study suggest, that the West African lion is distinctive and should be considered as critically endangered in West Africa. But in the totality of things, the killing through hunting is only a marginal contribution to the lion’s demise.

Potentially most relevant is the African Convention for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. This Convention, that is to supersede the 1968 Convention, requires protection of species and habitats. But it is not in force and only one of the five states (Niger) where the West African lion is found has ratified it. Four of the five states are a party to the original 1968 Convention, which lists the lion in ‘Class B’, meaning that states shall protect the lion but that they may also allow hunting, killing and capturing. It appears that the listing for the species as a whole in Class B will not be enough to protect a critically endangered subspecies, to which one may add the usual problems of enforcement due to lack of resources.

The fact that international law has not more to offer may be regrettable as it denies a potential power for those who aim to save the species. But this is not surprising. The five states where the West African lion now survives have little to gain by accepting and implementing a far reaching obligation to fully protect the lion.

There are two points to consider. The first are costs. Even if the five states, or a wider group of states where the lion in relatively recent history has been able to survive, could agree that they share an interest and perhaps a responsibility to protect the species (for the sake of tourism, humanity, or simply for the sake of the animal) it seems unthinkable that these states would have the means to do what it takes.

Another recent study estimated that sound management schemes for unfenced populations require budgets in excess of 2,000 million US dollar per km2 to attain half their potential densities. The range of the remaining lions is estimated at 49,000 km2 which would make for a budget of 98,000,000 million US dollar per year. There is no way in which the five countries in question could collectively bring up that money.

Fenced reserves would be cheaper – they could maintain lions at 80 percent of their potential densities on annual management budgets of 500 US dollar per km2. But fencing in itself is expensive (and some may ask why it is the lion that should be fenced in to protect populations that grow in uncontrolled speed and directions – should not rather men be fenced in to let the lion roam?)

The second point is who would have good grounds to insist on acceptance and performance of protection obligations. Given the location of the species, transborder habitats, and the relative power of regional institutions, one might say that this is an issue that calls for African solutions for African problems. But the question that should be asked is why five states should assume an obligation towards all other African states, which in the past did not care and let the lion go extinct from their territories. These include Mauritania, Gambia, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Cameroon. Even assuming that these states would care about protection of the remaining lions, it is hard to see on what ground they could now place themselves in a position where they could insist on acceptance and performance of obligations for the remaining five states to save the species for the African continent.

That is even more true for states in the Middle East and Europe, that were once part of the lion’s range. Given the widespread panic in cases of incidental sightings of bears and wolves in populated Europe, few will regret Europe’s contribution to the demise of the lion. But it is morally problematic to combine this with calls on African states to accept and implement obligations to protect the remaining animals that we do not want in our backyard.

As so often in the question for protection of species, the one factor that might alter the equation is money. If we truly care about the lion (and wish to ensure that also in the future the Lion King allows for an association with reality that Walking with Dinosaurs lacks), protection should be paid for.

The price of 100 million US dollar per year may seem high, but this is all relative. The International Criminal Court so far has cost over 900 million dollar in return for one verdict. The Lebanon Tribunal has already cost around 325 million dollar for proceedings against four Hezbollah members in a case that has the appearance of leaving unaffected the deeper causes of the problems.

Comparing costs of saving lions and costs of prosecuting individuals is of course comparing apples and oranges. But sharing responsibility is also about making choices, and exposing for which issues money can make a difference and for which it is largely symbolic, helps in making the right choice.

[1] Figure 2. Lion status in West African protected areas within lion range. Henschel P., Coad L., Burton C., Chataigner B., Dunn A., et al. (2014) The Lion in West Africa Is Critically Endangered. PLOS ONE 9(1): e83500. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083500.

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