Pieter's Blog

Welcome to Pieter Kat's official LionAid blog. Here you can follow Pieter's opinions, thoughts, insights and ideas on saving lions.

Sad for Simba?

Tuesday 29th January 2013

Sad for Simba?

                                                          Where have all the pridelands gone?

In a recent article in The Economist, a reporter mentioned that “whereas elephant and rhino poachers often end up dead or in jail, no lion killer in Kenya has ever ended up behind bars”. The article mentions that Kenya is losing about 100 lions per year (a number that has been bandied about but never substantiated) mainly as a result of human-lion conflict and perhaps ritual killings by Maasai warrior-inductees. Poisonous pesticides like Carbofuran (banned but still widely available) are used widely to destroy lions and other predators.


There are some problems with the article, not least that the author does not distinguish between commercial poachers after rhino horn and elephant ivory and those people out for retaliation following loss of livestock to dangerous predators. What is true is that in terms of wildlife both activities achieve the same net result – an ever-increasing cycle of destruction.


It is said that in Kenya about 70% of wildlife occurs outside strictly protected areas like national parks and reserves. This is largely because the gazetted protected areas are too small to form viable ecological units that can contain wildlife year-round during wet and dry seasons. In addition, some wildlife species, mainly the ones without teeth and claws, have been historically well tolerated on extensive Maasai grazing lands. Nevertheless, and after many years, the real question has not been satisfactorily answered in Kenya – “can dangerous predators like lions live with humans and their livestock?”


This lack of an answer has not resulted from a lack of ideas attempting to make living with predators less onerous for the rural people expected to do so. These include:

• Compensate people for their losses, either as a national or a privately funded initiative. There are three problems with this approach – farmers will cheat to get compensation; compensation is often slow; and private schemes are generally not durable. In addition, national schemes like those in Botswana have not worked well as despite a compensation scheme lions are still killed. In addition, compensation schemes do not pay for the full value of a lost animal as that would discourage better herding practices.

• Introduce an insurance scheme where people pay in to get paid out. Again, this is open to abuse through fraudulent claims, is not a concept that makes sense to rural communities who perhaps do not want to live with lions in the first place, and needs more careful administration than insurance providers seem to have been capable of in the past. In essence, if a claim is turned down, the claimant will be tempted to kill the lions anyway.

• Incentivise rural populations to live with wildlife through various benefit schemes. In Nepal, for example, communities are paid a bonus each year if they forego killing snow leopards and in India people are given grazing rights in national forests (and compensation) the sum total benefit of which exceeds the economic loss of cattle killed by Gir Forest lions. In Kenya, cattle regularly invade protected areas (the Kenya Wildlife Service estimates hundreds of thousands per year) and are not effectively dealt with – in other words the communities are utilizing national resources illegally without penalty and therefore do not value the resources as an offset against costs of living with wildlife.

• Involve rural communities to share in the financial benefits derived from wildlife. This was meant to be a wonderful way of changing hearts and minds – if wildlife pays for itself it will be seen as an asset worth conserving rather than a nuisance worth nothing. Two approaches have been tried in the past – consumptive utilization mainly through trophy hunting and non-consumptive use through photographic tourism. Both have failed in most instances as the rural communities do not truly share in profits that instead all accumulate to operators and governments. Despite many publications pointing out shortcomings, little has changed over very many years. However, in cases where community conservancies have been established, financial benefits flow more directly to the communities and conservation of directly valuable wildlife seems to have a better chance.

• Protect livestock better in areas where dangerous predators occur. This would involve better herding practices and construction of stronger enclosures (with or without flashing lights)  where domestic animals can be protected at night when predators are most active. This assumes there is plenty of alternative prey available for predators (not always the case) and that livestock can be grazed within a fixed distance from their enclosures (also not always the case especially in drier areas and/or during dry seasons). Also, it assumes that rural communities will accept that they must do more and pay more to protect their livestock because of the presence of dangerous carnivores they might not want to tolerate in the first place.


Conservation of large predators which impact on human populations by preying on livestock and indeed cause loss of human life is one of the most difficult challenges we face. We have not done well in the past as evidenced by the great decline in all large predator populations all over the world. Past formulas for conservation have not worked well, or at all, not because the ideas were wrong but in many instances because the application of the formulas did not sufficiently benefit the people expected to live with wildlife. This is true both for consumptive and non-consumptive users. Also, as fellow carnivores, humans are often in direct competition for wildlife prey (largely through poaching) with lions leading to a diminution of natural prey bases and an unsurprising turn towards domestic stock by predators. This engenders an ever-increasing cycle of human-predator conflict. In addition, direct poaching of predators like lions seems to be a growth industry to satisfy both the Traditional Chinese Medicine market now deprived of tiger products and the demand for teeth, claws, skins and skulls to supply the tourism industry in many lion range states. Not only that but lion products like fat are used in Nigeria to treat a variety of ills, lion skins have ceremonial value in many African countries (as do leopard skins), and lion cubs are taken to supplement the lion breeding industry (for trophy hunting) in South Africa and to supply the exotic animal trade in places like the United Arab Emirates.


Essentially, the decline in lions across Africa has not unsurprisingly resulted from an overwhelmingly negative perception of these dangerous animals by an ever-growing human population. In addition, lions are susceptible to a variety of introduced diseases like canine distemper and bovine tuberculosis, the more so because lions are naturally infected at very high levels by feline immunodeficiency virus, a disease that reduces immune competence and cub survival. Also, organizations like CITES supposedly regulating the international trade in animal and plant products to ensure such commerce does not negatively impact on conservation status stubbornly insist that trophy hunting offtake (accounting for 70-80% of all trade in lion products) is not trade – a lion trophy is merely a “household and personal effect”. Finally, conservation organizations like WWF and the Panthera Foundation confuse clarity as they continue to see commercial offtake of lions as a positive conservation benefit.


So what way forward for lions? There are positive developments. Botswana banned trophy hunting of the species in 2008 and a few weeks ago Zambia also announced an indefinite moratorium. More nations will doubtless follow suit and we are applying pressure where appropriate. To prevent further declines, we have accepted a fall-back position to ensure at least survival of lions in nationally protected areas that have a long-term probability for survival of viable populations. The viability of those areas will of course depend on their overall income from non-consumptive tourism, and many African nations have not yet developed the infrastructure to facilitate access to some of the most beautiful areas in the world. More international funding should be made available to intelligently conserve lions – after all something like $100 million was pledged to conserve tigers. Lions are an iconic species all over the world, and ensuring their survival as a world heritage is incumbent on all of us, not just the lion range states often struggling to make ends meet.


And finally, can people be expected to live with lions? That remains the biggest unanswered question that many seek to sweep under the carpet of conservation convenience. If 100 lions are killed per year in Kenya (out of a current lion population we estimate at 1,200-1,400 in a nation with a wildlife tourism income estimated at $500 million per year), then there continues to be a major disconnect between theoretical and realistic conservation. Conflict mitigation must be better addressed by Kenya as it is one of Africa’s countries most lauded for setting conservation examples. Good conservation starts at home, and so far it seems that Kenya is failing her lions, one of the biggest money spinners of international tourism and highly important to Kenya’s national heritage and culture.


Picture credit: Disney Corporation


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Add a comment | Posted by Pieter Kat at 19:14

Feline immunodeficiency virus among lions revisited

A sea change of attitude among leading researchers about the importance of FIV infection among lions? Yes it was, and will now perhaps lead to a better investigation of the effects of this pernicious disease that could significantly influence conservation priorities of remaining lion populations.  


In a recent article Emerging Viruses in the Felidae: Shifting Paradigms in the journal Viruses (7 Feb 2012, v4, pp 236-257) Steve O’Brien and his colleagues indicated a rather big shift in their previous paradigm about the effect of FIV on lions. For many years, O’Brien had been a foremost proponent of FIV infection being inconsequential among lions – after all, his research group had shown that the virus had most likely infected lions for many thousands of years, and despite high infection rates in places like the Serengeti and the Okavango, lions did not seem to be displaying negative effects. This view ignored some important pathological data gathered from an Italian zoo lion infected with FIV (Poli et al, 1995, J. Wildl. Diseases 31(1): 70-74) and immune system information from lions provided by Kennedy-Stoskopf since 1994. Basically, those studies contested what O’Brien and colleagues had been saying and were repeating, and indicated similar pathologies and consequences of infection to those among domestic cats that should have been taken seriously.


Niels Pedersen, a friend at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine, was the first to discover the Feline Immunodeficiency Virus in 1986. He was able to isolate this “new” virus from a domestic cat brought in to the Veterinary Hospital presenting symptoms and signs he recognized from monkeys infected with Simian Immunodeficiency Virus. Once the cat immunodeficiency virus was described, it became clear that the infection showed a similar progression of immune system compromise as had been noted among humans affected with HIV. Consequently, with an animal model, a great number of experimental protocols could and were designed with domestic cats to determine outcomes of infection with an immunodeficiency virus. Niels never believed that infection with such a virus could be inconsequential among lions.


Meanwhile, O’Brien and his co-workers (including virologists and veterinarians) seemed unaware of the very many journal articles detailing a great diversity of consequences of infection with FIV among domestic cats. Instead of using such information as a possible model of infection consequence among lions, they felt that lions had worked out some sort of “truce” with the virus. Why did they take this track?


First, O’Brien and his colleagues looked at the divergent genetic sequences of the FIV strains infecting lions, and came to the conclusion that this was an old association between this virus and a big cat (perhaps over 300,000 years?). Making another leap, they decided that all long-term associations between a virus and host inevitably resulted in a compromise – and used examples like measles and smallpox for example. There are of course elements of truth in this, as selection works on host immune systems to become better resistant to viruses and also on viruses to diminish the lethal effects on their hosts so the viruses have the opportunity to spread. But that is not the way immunodeficiency viruses operate – they mutate rapidly, shuffle parts of genomes among co-infecting FIV strains, and are not in themselves immediately lethal. Selection on an immunodeficiency virus has more to do with better avoidance of immune responses than accommodating longevity of the host. That is already built into the virus modus operandi (see below).


Second, O’Brien et al were looking for an immunodeficiency virus/host association that was not greatly negative to the host to perhaps decipher genetic mechanisms for resistance. This would then lead to a better understanding of how HIV infection among human populations could perhaps be mitigated. Direct studies of human populations had already led to an understanding that western Europeans had higher levels of resistance to HIV infection than, say, African populations. O’Brien and colleagues attributed this to possible effects of exposure by Europeans to a great diversity of pathogens in the past – for example the numerous outbreaks of plague in the Middle Ages that perhaps fortuitously selected for a particular genetic makeup among survivors -  that then provided a better chance of surviving the future challenge of HIV centuries later. But any hopeful level of accommodation with FIV was not to be found among lions.


Third, researchers wrongly interpreted the way immunodeficiency viruses actually affect their hosts. Proof of infection via antibody analyses proved to be at very high levels in some populations – close to all adult lions in the Okavango and the Serengeti for example. But lions were not dying in huge numbers, and infected individuals seemed perfectly healthy for years after they had been diagnosed positive. Surprise, surprise?  Not really, as that is the way the virus works. After an initial illness following infection, the virus then settles down to work slowly (it is after all a lentivirus) but inexorably to erode the immune system. Animals and humans can indeed seem apparently healthy for years after first infection as the immune system remains largely functional and is perhaps supplemented by a variety of secondary defence mechanisms (e.g. hormones, B-cell activation mechanisms independent of T-cells). FIV infection among lion populations thus did not present as an epidemic. This should have been expected, but instead it was used as evidence for co-adaptation and justification for misplaced hypotheses.


In hindsight, it was compromised science. After negating the consequences of FIV infection among lions for many years, and therefore significantly supporting the hopeful view that the infection was inconsequential, O’Brien and his colleagues finally acknowledged some cracks in the façade. In the paper mentioned above, O’Brien admitted that their past conclusions were premature and oversimplified. He refers to a study undertaken by Melody Roelke (a veterinarian in his group) among Botswana lions and added the following remarks:


a) “A marked depletion of CD4 bearing T-lymphocytes was apparent in FIV infected lions, a prelude to immune collapse in well-defined AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome];

b) In addition, there were multiple elevations of opportunistic infections… further, spleen and lymph node biopsies from nine free-ranging lions revealed evidence of lymphoid depletion, a hallmark of AIDS in human[s], cats, and macaques [a primate] … these findings strongly suggest FIV is contributing to the loss of immune competence among these lions;

c)  These observations would suggest that infection with FIV … might have increased the risk of mortality upon secondary CDV [Canine Distemper Virus] infection [during the CDV outbreak in the 1990s];

d) … the striking influence of FIV on lion immune function … clinical disposition, and a potential ancillary role in CDV mortality … affirms that FIV is likely pathogenic among lions … FIV is a potentially harmful agent in free-ranging lions, as for housecats, and deserves further scrutiny in the other free-ranging species afflicted with FIV.”


While this is good news for a belated recognition of the importance of FIV infections among lions and their resulting fragility, it also places FIV back in the mainstream of concerns for the future survival of lions. There are perhaps five or six populations of lions that number over 1000 individuals of all ages. On these populations rests the hope for the future survival of the species in Africa, and they largely occur in protected areas. Such populations are not protected from disease, and cannot be cured of FIV. Future conservation and management of the species can now move on to incorporate disease components with the brave admission from O’Brien’s research group that what they said in the past about the consequences of FIV infection among lions was “premature and oversimplified”.


We now need to move forward in a united determination to design the best conservation plans for this greatly threatened species. The threat from disease can finally unanimously be taken seriously among FIV compromised populations (basically all the five or six large populations mentioned above), and must be included in all conservation programmes as now there can be no more distractors.


 Picture:  Science Photo Library

Add a comment | Posted by Pieter Kat at 16:49

Canine distemper virus, domestic dog vaccination, lions and cheetahs

In a recent article  Alienor Cauvenet and co-authors from the Institute of Zoology, London looked at the impact of domestic dog canine distemper vaccination campaigns, the positive impact on lion populations in the Serengeti, and the possibly negative implications on cheetah populations in the same ecosystem. Basically, their conclusions were that the vaccinations and the resulting diminution of canine distemper virus in the ecosystem benefited one species (lions) but had a consequent negative effect on cheetah populations, as the subsequently rebounding lion population had adverse effects on cheetah reproduction. The article was written as a supposed cautionary message against promoting the conservation of one species over another.


The article was based on selective use of information, a lack of understanding of introduced diseases on susceptible carnivore populations, and evident unfamiliarity of evolutionary relationships among carnivore species. In short, it is no more than a series of assumptions.


But let’s start with a bit of history. In 1994 a canine distemper virus outbreak swept through the Serengeti, killing an estimated one third (1000) of lions in the population. The outbreak also killed lions in the Masai Mara and in the Ngorongoro Crater. The virus was isolated and genetically typed – but then compared to a South African strain in claims that it was a genetic variant of possibly higher virulence. The outbreak, according to authors in the journal Nature (Roelke-Parker at al, 2006), also affected hyenas, bat-eared foxes, and leopards. In the Masai Mara, an earlier outbreak resulted in local extinction of the African Wild Dog population (Alexander et al 1993, J. Zoo Wildl. Med; Alexander & Appel 1994, J. Wildl. Dis;  Alexander et al 1995, J. Zoo Wildl. Med), and a subsequent outbreak in the northeastern Serengeti killed more Wild Dogs in 2007 (Goller et al 2007, Vet. Microbiol). The outbreak also likely affected carnivores like jackals (Canis adustus, Canis mesomelas, and Canis aureus) at least. Canine distemper has a very wide host range, extending from Lesser Pandas to raccoons, canids to felids.


In response to the 1994 outbreak, Project Life Lion was established to vaccinate domestic dogs in the area, the source and maintenance host population for further epidemics. Was this necessary? I believe so. Canine distemper is an introduced and emerging disease among African carnivores. The virus, like the most prevalent form of rabies in Africa, comes from domestic dogs, a carnivore introduced by humans to sub-Saharan Africa and Tanzania not much more than 500 years ago.


After the distemper outbreak with high mortality among lions, subsequent sampling among a number of survivors indicated that 85% had antibodies. In other words, not all infected lions died, another widely observed consequence of canine distemper virus among a diversity of susceptible carnivores. With that level of protective antibodies among survivors, was the vaccination programme necessary among domestic dogs? The answer is again yes, as that maintenance host population will probably spawn repeated epidemics, and apart from lions, very many other carnivores will be affected.


Now let’s return to the paper by Cauvenet et al. Their assertion is that the vaccination programme (despite the evidence of protective antibodies among lions) was responsible for a resurgence in lion populations in the Serengeti, much to the disadvantage of sympatric cheetahs. They say that this “unintended” consequence of protecting one species (lions) with a vaccination programme of domestic dogs could lead to the demise of another species (cheetahs) – because lions kill cheetah cubs and adults.


 Not only do Cauvenet et al ignore the fact that a great number of other species were negatively affected by the distemper outbreak, they also ignore three other important pieces of information. First, lions and cheetahs have probably been interacting negatively on the African savannahs for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. Lions also cause mortality among other sympatric predators like hyenas, Wild Dogs, and leopards. Lions are apex predators after all, and the composition of the entire predator and prey community is shaped by their presence. Second, tacitly accepting that an unchecked and introduced disease should alter this ancient formula to the benefit of a single species (cheetahs) is nonsensical. And third, their naïve acceptance that cheetahs are not themselves affected by canine distemper is unsubstantiated.


For example, studies in Namibia by Munson et al (2004 – J. Wildl. Dis) indicate that 24% of a sample of 81 free-ranging cheetahs in an area of likely contact with domestic dogs had canine distemper antibodies. They say “Antibodies against CDV were detected in cheetahs of all ages sampled between 1995 and 1998, suggesting the occurrence of an epidemic in Namibia during the time when CDV swept through other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This evidence in free-ranging Namibian cheetahs of exposure to viruses that cause severe disease in captive cheetahs should direct future guidelines for translocations, including quarantine of seropositive cheetahs and preventing contact between cheetahs and domestic pets.”  Given the wide host range of canine distemper, it is very likely that cheetahs will also be susceptible, and suffer population consequences of an epidemic.


In summary, introduced and emerging diseases among wildlife populations should be actively addressed. Assertions that one species (cheetahs) might benefit from unchecked outbreaks among competitors (lions) are specious. Especially when such outbreaks could affect cheetahs themselves, and also have significant consequences on a great number of other sympatric carnivores. Cauvenet et al’s paper should  have been more vigilantly reviewed.


Picture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cheetah_portrait_Whipsnade_Zoo.jpg

Add a comment | Posted by Pieter Kat at 19:54

  Lion trophy hunting and range state population numbers

Please click on this link to see a country by country assessment of lion trophy hunting for African nations that permit(ted) the practice. This is the most up-to-date analysis, and includes CITES export numbers, threat assessments for lion populations in each country, a summary statement for each country, and a conclusion on trophy hunting offtake.

Please bring this report to the attention of members of Congress, Senators, Members of Parliaments, and Members of European Parliament who represent you. It is a document that all decision makers need to see to end lion sport hunting. We need your active participation to circulate this report. Thank you.


Picture Credit : Chris Harvey



Add a comment | Posted by Pieter Kat at 17:45