by Merritt Clifton
Proposing to list African lions as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on October 29, 2014 issued a knotty challenge to opponents of trophy hunting and killing captive wildlife.
Failing to distinguish between wild lions and lions bred in captivity for short-term release before being shot, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife proposal turned many of the arguments as to why lions should not be bred for trophies into arguments that this may be the only way to ensure their collective survival––as ANIMALS 24-7 spotlighted in “U.S. proposal to ‘protect’ African lions hands their heads to hunters,” http://www.animals24-7.org/wp-admin/.
If one believes that the only reason to protect African lions is to preserve a particular genetic configuration, the logic of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is difficult to refute. Conversely, contradicting the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service logic is awkward if one believes that wild and captive animals should enjoy equivalent moral status.
But at least one U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service contention should be easily refuted––if the petitioners seeking Endangered Species Act protection for African lions had not long since bought into the same widely accepted argument.
Those petitioners were the Humane Society of the U.S., Humane Society International, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Defenders of Wildlife, and Born Free USA.
The argument, framed by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service director Daniel M. Ashe, is simply that humans and wildlife cannot coexist––especially humans and large predators. “Demographers believe the human population in sub-Saharan Africa will double by 2050,” said Ashe, as if this closed the case.
The influence of 18th century thinking
Early in the evolution of the environmental movement, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) authored An Essay On The Principles of Population (1798) after exhaustive study of all available data on human population growth and historical declines. Malthus’ essay was more-or-less the origin of demographics and resource economics.
Publication of the essay roughly coincided with the rise of efforts in Europe to politically protect wildlife habitat that was jeopardized by the rise of the Industrial Revolution and a decline in the fortunes of much of the landed gentry who had formerly protected extensive private hunting preserves.
In the U.S., An Essay On The Principles of Population over the next two centuries influenced environmental thinkers from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir to Paul Ehrlich. Generations of conservationists, environmentalists, futurists, and animal advocates have accepted as a given that because the first 150 years of U.S. history included both rapid human population growth and a catastrophic loss of wildlife, the former caused the latter, and therefore any human population growth may be expected to have comparable consequences, due to the competition for resources identified by Malthus.
Indeed, human activity triggered the extirpation of most large wildlife from Europe, the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, Steller’s sea cow, and the great auk in North America, and the near loss from the continental U.S of the North American bison, grey, red, and Mexican wolves, jaguar, bald eagle, lynx, wolverine, and many dozens of lesser known species.
20th century transition
Yet, by the last half of the 20th century, North American attitudes toward wildlife and patterns of living had significantly changed. Much wildlife is today more abundant in North America than it was when the human population was a third of the present size––from small species such as squirrels up to huge species with large habitat needs, such as elk and bison, and even dangerous predators, including pumas and grizzly bears.
Points out Jim Sterba in Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds [see review at http://wp.me/p4pKmM-wm;], “What is striking is how many wild species, large and small, have come back from near extinction in some cases. They aren’t all back, of course, but many animal and bird populations not only have been nursed back to health but have adjusted unexpectedly to life among people. This has happened nationwide, but is especially true in the eastern third of the country, where the majority of Americans live…It is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals and birds in the eastern U.S. today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history.
“We are essentially forest dwellers,” Sterba continues. “If you draw a line around the largest forested region in the contiguous U.S., the one that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains, you will have drawn a line around nearly two-thirds of America s forests (excluding Alaska’s) and two-thirds of the U.S. population.”
Reasons for concern
None of this necessarily presages a population recovery of wild African lions, nor of any other African species now in jeopardy, from elephants and rhinos to gorillas and chimpanzees. There is indeed every reason to be apprehensive of the effects of rapid human population growth in Africa, not least because of the growth of commerce in wildlife and wildlife products to China and Vietnam, whose own wildlife has been severely depleted by increasing pressure from their own growing human populations.
On the other hand, the rise of affluence and better education in both China and Vietnam has brought about explosions of concern there for protecting wildlife and curtailing consumption of wildlife products. The Chinese and Vietnamese movements on behalf of animals and habitat have not yet fully caught up to consumptive demand, but have brought about legislative changes and visible change in the attitudes of younger people in a mere fraction of the time that comparable progress required in the U.S. and Europe.
Examples from India
India, meanwhile, may afford several examples applicable to the African situation of human population growth coinciding with wildlife recovery. To be sure, none of the 40-odd nations which once harbored African lions have anything like the pro-animal ethical teachings of the Indian vegetarian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. But Kenya abolished sport hunting in 1977, the same year as India, and has now kept the ban in place for 37 years, despite the concentrated efforts of pro-hunting organizations worldwide to repeal it. The people of several other African nations, notably Botswana, have elected governments on platforms that included suspending trophy hunting and curtailing poaching.
Quite apart from all of that, Wildlife Conservation Society of India and Wildlife Institute of India researchers recently published two studies which suggest that some large predators, under certain circumstances, may do better in proximity to humans than in the undisturbed wild.
Project Tiger, the banner for four decades of increasingly desperate efforts to save tigers in India, has managed to make tigers a national icon without accomplishing much to actually recover the tiger population. The much ballyhooed tiger recovery of the latter part of the 20th century in the early 21st century turned out to be mostly an illusion created by poor censusing. Tiger poaching and loss of tiger habitat continue.
But leopards and Asiatic lions are thriving, for reasons connected to human population growth.
Analyzing leopard scats collected from rural Akole, in Maharashtra state, with an estimated population density of about one leopard per hundred square kilometers, and a comparable number of striped hyenas competing to catch wild prey, Wildlife Conservation Society of India biologist Vidya Athreya discovered that street dogs and feral cats “made up around 54% of the leopards’ diet, with canines alone accounting for almost 40% of the big cat’s meals. Wild animals, including rodents, mongoose and birds, made up just 17% of the leopards’ diet,” summarized Amit Bhattacharya for the Times News Network on September 15, 2014.
Said Athreya, “Before the study, I believed more livestock were being killed by leopards. But goats showed up just 10% of the time in leopards’ scats, cows another 10%, and sheep 5%. This, despite the density of livestock being far higher than dogs in the area.”
Explained Athreya, “Leopards living in human habitats hunt exclusively at night. That’s when livestock are in enclosures, difficult to access. Dogs, on the other hand, roam freely at night. And, there are plenty of dogs. Our research shows the density of dogs in the study area can sustain more than 10 times the current population of leopards.”
Street dogs in India live chiefly through scavenging from human refuse and hunting rats, who also feed on the refuse. Leopards, according to Athreya’s findings, have established a habitat niche for themselves at the apex of the food chain consuming human refuse. The most serious threat to the leopard population might come from the dog sterilization efforts of the Indian national Animal Birth Control program––but the federally funded ABC program, underway since 2003, has so far barely reduced the numbers of dogs in the biggest cities, not yet touching most of the countryside.
Leopards live throughout India. Asiatic lions occur only in the Gir forest of Rajasthan, but have steadily increased their population from just 13 when their habitat was protected in 1907 by order of the Nawab of Junagadh, to 411 at the most recent count.
A team led by Wildlife Institute of India scientist Y.V. Zala in August 2014 reported in a paper entitled Living with Lions: The Economics of Coexistence in the Gir Forests, India that the lions have evolved a peaceful coexistence with the pastoralists who graze their livestock within the lions’ protected habitat.
The lions within the study area had not harmed any humans within the preceding 20 years. Of their prey, 76.4% were wild ungulates, including chital, sambar, nilgai, and wild pigs. The remaining 23.6% were domestic livestock, accounting for 58.4% of livestock mortality during the study, or 180 of 308 total livestock deaths. However, the lions “killed mainly unproductive cattle (such as bulls, ailing calves, aged, and dying cattle) for food,” summarized Himanshu Kaushik for the Times News Network. In addition, the Gir Forest lions consume cattle who have died of other causes.
Wrote Zala et al, “In Gir, since livestock are reared only for dairy products and are not eaten, there is a large cohort of old and weak cattle in whom natural mortality is high. These carcasses are available to lions for scavenging.”
In effect, the Gir Forest lions have become part of the local cattle production system, culling the herds and disposing of remains which might otherwise attract more aggressive predators.
Such relationships may not evolve to help save African lions and other African wildlife. But that they have evolved to help large predators survive in India should hint that equating human population growth with wildlife species loss is looking at only one future possibility, and is perhaps selling both human and animal adaptability short.
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