Or is the kingdom losing its king? The diminishing distribution of lion populations has been in serious decline for the past decades, its range that used to include Greece, Iraq and Northern Africa (Lebreton, 2011) has now been reduced to scattered populations in sub-Saharan Africa. The harsh truth is that the big cat populations are in decline due to human disturbances such as habitat loss and hunting and scientists are worried if this trend does not turn soon, Africa will have lost one of its mightiest symbols (NatGeo, 2014).
The loss of an apex predator (meaning the big boss predator) in an ecosystem can have pretty detrimental effects, more detrimental than you would first think. What is important to realise is that every part of an ecosystem has an impact on another part one way or another. A way to consider this is to look at the Green World Hypothesis suggested by United States scientists Nelson Hairston, Frederick Smith and Lawrence Slobodkin in 1960. This theory states that herbivores are regulated by factors that make them incapable of consuming too much plant biomass. Plants themselves, represented by different defence strategies, can mediate these factors or the number of herbivores can be regulated by predation. Therefore, the loss of an apex predator can result in an overabundance of herbivores, which again can result in vegetation damage and changes. All in all it is not very beneficial for the ecosystem.
So, it sounds good in theory but how can we then relate this to the demise of the African lion? Well, one can consider a simple food chain located on the African Savannah. The main producer and the first link in the chain in this case would be the grass. The grass is called the primary producer because it will then sustain the next link up in the food chain, namely the herbivores. If there are too many zebras grazing on the grass, the grass will not be able to maintain its level of productivity and the zebras will not have enough food. However, the presence of a lion as a predator will then become a regulator of the zebra population, making sure that they don’t become too many. This will allow the grass to maintain a stable productivity level and be able to sustain other herbivorous populations alongside the zebra population.
The reasons for the lion’s demise are many, and many of these reasons are due to human activity. Human expansion has challenged the home ranges for many lion populations and their territory keeps shrinking. However, what is probably the biggest reason for the decline is hunting, both legal and illegal hunting (natgeo.com).
The debate surrounding trophy hunting has created a spectrum of opinions, ranging from the protectionists to more practical-minded conservationists and pro-hunting individuals. Many oppose trophy hunting due to some of the problems that occur when this type of hunting is used in Africa (Lindsey et al, 2006). These problems can be corruption related, as in the money is not invested where they were promised. Also, game ranchers might attempt to manipulate gene pools in order to create a more unique and tempting trophy for hunters, thus increasing the risk for harmful mutations. Other issues can be related to the lack of knowledge and equipment at the local communities. Without the appropriate tools for ecological monitoring and assessment, the setting of harvesting quotas may be miscalculated, sometimes resulting in a too high quota being set for a certain species (Lindsey et al, 2006).
Some humans also have the need to prove themselves against the forces of nature. Since nature has not equipped us with tools to fight of large carnivores, some individuals resolve to crueller methods to assert their dominance over other living things. Canned hunting is such an example of a cruel method. Here animals, mostly lions, are breed in captivity and then released into fenced of areas only to get shot by a paying hunter. This has been snatched up by different channels of social media and has created an outrage worldwide. An example of an individual that has caused havoc in the social media circles lately is professional hunter Melissa Bachman. On her website melissabachman.com she displays photos of her trophies. One of the most controversial photos was a photo of her posing with a dead lion. Due to the endangered status of lions this caused a lot of emotional turmoil amongst the human population online. Because trophy hunting then becomes associated with individuals like Bachman, trophy hunting gets a reputation of destruction.
Trophy hunting has been a force used mostly for destruction for many years. However, in recent times there have been incentives to change the perception of trophy hunting and turn it into something positive for conservation. What we know well is that trophy hunting is a huge source of income and unfortunately, conservation is an expensive affair. Yet, are we humans willing to compromise in such a way that we allow a practice that has disgusted us for so many years to become a part of something as important as conservation? Lets face it, humans hunt, whether it be for sport or out of necessity. Hunting has been a part of human behaviour for a very long time. In many cases we can see ourselves as a top predator, a regulator, of ecosystems. However, it is when we start to abuse this power and ignore the needs of the ecosystem that trouble comes knocking.
N., Smith, F. & Slobodkin L. 1960. Community structure, population control and competition. Am. Nat.94: 421-425
Lindsey, P.A., Roulet, P.A. & Romanach, S.S. (2006). Economic and conservation significance of the trophy hunting industry in sub-Saharan Africa.134, 455-469
Lebreton, J.-D. (2011).The impact of global change on terrestrial vertebrates.Comptes Rendus Biologies, 334, 360–369.