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.

Lions in captivity

We suffer more than you think


Here, I’ll review some new information as well as data published some time ago about the negative consequences of keeping lions in captivity. It seems lions are particularly susceptible to skeletal deformities, behavioural abnormalities, and high rates of cub mortality. This information is particularly relevant because there are now an estimated 8,000 lions bred in captivity in South Africa primarily to supply the canned hunting industry and because it is emerging that zoos regularly euthanize lions in their collections – a recent event in the UK involved the removal of six lions due to what was described as “behavioural abnormalities”.

The older information is supplied by a paper published in the journal Nature in 2003 entitled “Captivity effects on wide-ranging carnivores”.

There, the authors found a strong correlation between high levels of infant mortality in captivity and minimum home-range size of the species in the wild. In other words, species like lions and polar bears with large home ranges had the highest rates of infant mortality (42% and 65% respectively) compared to species like the American mink with a much smaller home range (3%). In addition, the authors found a very strong correlation between “stereotypic behaviour” (pacing up and down in cages in particular) and home range size. Again, lions and polar bears had the highest levels of stereotypic behaviour (48% and 40% respectively), while species like the American mink with much smaller home ranges in the wild showed much lower levels of such behaviour (9%).

The authors concluded that among carnivores, those species that are naturally wide-ranging showed the most evidence of stress and/or psychological dysfunction in captivity. Infant mortality was largely a result of poor maternal care. The authors therefore suggested that the keeping of naturally wide-ranging species in captivity should be greatly improved (e.g. by providing a lot more space – polar bears in captivity have about one-millionth the space available to a wild polar bear) or phased out completely.

The newer information was recently published in PLoS One, entitled “Comparative Skull Analysis Suggests Species-Specific Captivity-Related Malformation in Lions (Panthera leo)”.

The authors commented that while lions have been kept in captivity for centuries and reproduce well, high rates of stillbirths as well as morbidity and mortality of neonate and young lions are reported. Many of these cases were associated with bone malformations, including foramen magnum (FM) stenosis (narrowing – the FM is where the spinal cord exits the brain). The authors found such stenosis in 40% of captive lion skulls versus 4% of wild lion skulls in various museum collections. Such narrowing causes pressure on the spinal cord and is associated with neurological abnormalities – the authors say “We hypothesize here that these differences arise from additional bone formation … it may be proposed that additional bone growth is not only outward but also inward, possibly causing diminution of the caudal fossa, compression of the hindbrain and the neurological symptoms often seen in diseased lions.”

The authors postulated that such stenosis could result from lack of adequate diet (especially insufficient Vitamin A) but to me that is not entirely plausible as the only explanation as no such pattern was found among captive versus wild tigers. The authors also reviewed previous analyses indicating other captivity-related malformations among lions including shortening of the skull, reduced cranial volume and a general increase in the overall thickness of the skull. Again, a dietary cause was proposed: wild lions eat whole carcasses including the internal organs that contain high levels of necessary vitamins. In contrast, captive carnivores are usually fed pieces of red meat, chickens or processed cat food.

Apart from a dietary explanation the authors also propose genetic causes – perhaps due to increased levels of inbreeding among captive lions. This is plausible as few wild lions enter the captive-bred pool, which is largely supplied by lion lineages long held in captivity.

In summary, lions in captivity suffer a high level of stillbirths, a much higher frequency of behavioural abnormalities compared to smaller carnivores, and skeletal deformities likely to cause neurological complications. As captive bred lions do not contribute to the conservation of ever-shrinking wild lion populations and cannot be returned to the wild without a staged programme including at least one generation, one does wonder what the value is of keeping lions in captivity. Clearly there are strong negative health and animal welfare consequences that should mitigate strongly against this practice.


FM stenosis

An example of Foramen Magnum stenosis – the skull on the right from a captive lion shows clearly abnormal bone growth (asterisk) occluding the foramen – this likely caused significant pressure on the spinal chord.


Picture credits – captive lions: www.theguardian.com; skulls: PLos One.



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1 Comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 17:02

The long reach of the hunters

Monday 7th April 2014

Hunting spider

Some of those convinced



We should be under no delusion that hunters and trophy hunters haven’t deeply penetrated and influenced a number of NGOs and International Agencies. This is largely because such agencies support “sustainable utilization”, a very vague term. In terms of trophy hunting, such organizations consider the activity part of sustainable use with the usual caveats:

  • that offtake rates must be scientifically monitored and adjusted based on impact;
  • that hunting should benefit the conservation of the species; produce revenue for protected area management or community conservation;
  • offset the costs of living with wildlife for rural communities and generate positive attitudes toward wildlife;
  • and/or be employed as a management tool for wildlife populations.

In reality none of these caveats, while explicitly stated, are actually monitored. This would seem especially crucial for trophy hunting of endangered species and/or those with complex social structures like lions.

Some of the hunting lobbying groups are going out of their way to increase their reach. For example, in 2004 the Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU (FACE) signed an agreement with Birdlife International (who describe themselves as “widely recognised as the world leader in bird conservation”) to allow hunting even within the Natura 2000 areas – a network of European nature protection areas.

Also, the IUCN published in 2013, under their logo, a report entitled “Hunting: Conserving wildlife, key to global cultural heritage” . This was a direct transcript of the report of the Jubilee 60th General Assembly of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC), a pro-hunting organization. In that report, Jon Hutton, Executive Director of UNEP-WCMC, was quoted as saying "Hunting is not part of conservation; it is conservation”. Not to be outdone, Dr Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) gave a message of support as well that “served to further highlight the importance of the sustainable use of wildlife in the conservation biological diversity and preservation of rural livelihoods". At the same time [the message] acknowledged the leading role which the CIC is playing in actively achieving this objective, in close collaboration with the CBD.

The Jubilee meeting also resulted in the agreement to jointly map possible areas of collaboration between the CIC and Interpol in order to work towards a Memorandum of Understanding between the two organizations. A further meeting with representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) ”confirmed the intent of both CIC and FAO to collaborate further, beyond the joint work which has already been done.”

The IUCN even has a Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group chaired by Rosie Cooney, formerly of WWF International. This specialist group is openly pro-trophy hunting. In addition the Species Survival Commission has published a special document on Trophy Hunting as a Tool for Creating Conservation Incentives in 2012 .

WWF-South Africa is openly pro trophy hunting, as is the parent organization. WWF South Africa recently stated that “WWF-South Africa regards hunting as a legitimate conservation management tool and incentive for conservation, and regularly engages with major game hunting associations to promote ethical hunting and combat inhumane practices.
We aren’t opposed at all to trophy hunting and wholeheartedly support the proactive, science-based, in-situ management of plant and animal populations…”.

This is the reach of the trophy hunting organizations, and there are very many more examples. The problem, of course, is that while all these NGOs and Agencies state that they support trophy hunting with all the caveats listed above, there seems little drive to actually engage in the monitoring role they deem so important. Such monitoring of whether trophy hunting is sustainable, well-managed, beneficial to the conservation of the species, etc – remains left to others.

And who those others are remains a mystery, as there are no scientific studies that have actually proven conservation benefits to African lion trophy hunting, apart from those that mention economic benefits. Indeed, scientific studies undertaken in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Benin and Tanzania actually show the opposite. These are largely ignored.

As long as major international conservation NGOs and Agencies maintain their uncritical and supportive stances on trophy hunting, without conducting their own independent determinations, it will require considerable additional effort to convince them that buying into propaganda is not in their best interests.


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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 17:42


Lion spelled CTAG

Lion spelled CTAG


In a recent publication, Ross Barnett of Durham University and co-authors refined our understanding of both lion genetics and the dynamics of lion movements over the past millennia. Using mitochondrial (maternally inherited) DNA from 14 lions representing a number of extinct populations, their conclusions are highly interesting.

The samples were extracted from museum specimens of several now extinct lion populations in North Africa and Iran, and even included two lions from around 1400AD that were part of the menagerie at the Tower of London. The main conclusions were as follows:

  • Eastern/southern Africa is most likely the evolutionary cradle of modern-day lions.
  • A major division took place about 125,000 years ago, resulting in a group composed of eastern and southern African lions and another group of western, central, northern African and Asian lions. This latter group split again about 61,000 years ago into a central African group and one that includes lions from western and northern Africa and Asia. 
  • The final split between Asian lions and northern Africa lions only occurred about 21,000 years ago. This is interesting as lion fossils that are much older have been found in Iran and Israel. This implies that there has always been considerable genetic contact among lions across a wide region including northern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, the extremes of which are over 8,000 km apart. Such contact then ceased at around that date, perhaps an indication of increasing levels of anthropogenic influences – remember that sheep were domesticated about 13,000 years ago and agriculture began about 12,000 years ago indicative of relatively dense human populations in the Middle East. 
  • These various splits among the five genetic “clades” of lions Lion groupscan be traced back to rapid climatic changes taking place in Africa during the Pleistocene, including several cycles of high rainfall followed by high aridity. Associated vegetational changes likely split lion populations into geographically isolated subpopulations that genetically diverged from each other. 
  • The genetic results again establish the uniqueness of western African lions that unfortunately remain in legislative limbo while they should be classified as highly endangered. Only one reasonably large population of 350 individuals remains in the W-Arly-Pendjari transfrontier area of Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso. The total number of remaining western African lions is little more than 400 animals. 
  • Northern African lions, also known as Barbary lions, are extinct. A number of zoos claim to maintain a group of “Barbary” lions derived from the Moroccan Royal Menagerie, but their (maternal) genetics do not resemble those of the museum specimens collected before their extinction from places like Tunisia and Algeria – and the Tower of London lions. The authors suggest that instead of using “Barbary” zoo lions in any attempt to restore northern African lions, those reintroductions would better genetically mimic original Barbary lions if the new colonists were drawn from Indian lion populations.
  • The authors caution that their conclusions would be strengthened by confirmation with data from nuclear DNA.

Despite this and previous studies pointing out the clearly distinctive genetics of western African lions and their ever-decreasing populations, organizations like the IUCN and CITES refuse to consider any special levels of protection. In fact, lions are still allowed to be trophy hunted in Benin and Burkina Faso – the latter country exported 55 lion trophies (males) between 2007 and 2010 and Benin exported 11 lion trophies (males) between 2010 and 2012. This cannot go on – with approximately 350 lions of both sexes and all ages remaining in that one small population of a critically endangered group of lions, why are such offtakes still tolerated by CITES?

Also, the study indicates that lions in Central Africa also require special conservation status. Today, small and scattered populations remain in northern Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, and perhaps South Sudan. With the exception of Cameroon, these remaining range states are among the most unstable nations in the world – which does not bode well for conservation of their remaining wildlife. A very optimistic estimate suggests that maybe 600 central African lions remain, although no population surveys of any scientific credibility have ever been conducted in the region except for Cameroon.

Lions are the only large cat species not listed on Appendix 1 of CITES. Lion conservation is grossly underfunded and conflicted by several international conservation organizations stubbornly insisting that continued trophy hunting is “good” for conservation. Few African nations have rigorous national lion conservation plans in place, and the latest CITES periodic review of African lions  is an embarrassment.

Of the 15 range states that bothered to supply information, lions are already extinct or virtually extinct in 9 of them (Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, Rwanda, Nigeria and South Sudan).

Unless we do much more and quite quickly, Indian lions, which are treasured and therefore much better protected, might be called on in future to repopulate all of Africa.

Picture credit: anthgen.wordpress.com


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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 11:52



Tanzanian Ass of Tour Operstors  

It’s a tussle


In recent newspaper reports, the Chairman of the Tanzanian Association of Tour Operators (TATO) said that the negative impacts of trophy hunting outweigh its return, demanding the business be banned as concrete step to combat poaching.

 TATO Chairman Willy Chambulo argued that it defeats common sense to continue carrying on trophy hunting in the face of a crisis that is “screaming” towards the ultimate extinction of Tanzania’s big five animals at the expense of tourism.

Photographic tourism is estimated to deliver $1.82 billion annually, equivalent to nearly 17.6 percent of GDP from over a million visitors per year. Hunters were estimated to bring in $75 million from 2008-2011 ($18.75 million annually), $20 million in 2012, and an estimated $50 million in 2013. None of those figures are verified.

Hunting income numbers could well be highly inflated. Alexander Songorwa, the recently sacked director of wildlife, is credited with the $75 million figure from 2008-2011. From CITES export records during that four year period, trophy hunters shot a total of 466 elephants in Tanzania. The trophy fees paid depend on the weight of the tusks - for instance, the fees in 2012 were $7,500 for tusks of 15 to 27 kg, $12,000 for 27-32 kg, and $20,000 for ivory over 32 kg. That means elephant trophy fees would have brought in an average of $6,407,500 for those four years at 2012 rates.

During the same time period, Tanzania exported 465 lion trophies. The trophy fees varied during that time, but let’s take the fees now applicable of $12,000 per lion (it was $4,900 in 2008). That would add a total of $5,580,000.

There are a large number of hunting concessions in Tanzania, but diminishing as wildlife is depleted. These concessions also pay annual fees – let’s estimate 156 concessions at varying concession rates during the four years to deliver a total of $9,160,000 (maximum concession price was $27,000 per year).

Then there are perhaps a number of other fees and other species trophy fees, but overall, can they make up the deficit of over $53.8 million on Songorwa’s $75 million number? It just does not seem to add up.

Tanzania’s rural communities earn a pittance from trophy hunting – the hunting companies are only required to pay communities $4 per square kilometre per year for hunting on their land.

Perhaps the Tanzania Professional Hunters Association (TPHA) could cast some light. They seem angered by TATO’s proposals, and now demand tour operators to be taxed heavily to raise funds required to equip anti-poaching squads. The TPHA thus proposes an increase to $250 from the current $60 daily entry fee per person to the Serengeti National Park and other steep fee increases for other areas.

TATO seems to be holding the high ground in terms of relative income of photographic tourism versus trophy hunting (even though Tanzania has set aside 250,000km2 exclusively for trophy hunting purposes). TATO has also pointed out that the Selous Game Reserve, an area largely dedicated to hunting concessions, has seen a decline in elephants from about 39,000 in 2009, to about 13,000 today. This would seem to negate claims that hunting companies are highly effective in anti-poaching activities as claimed.

Trophy hunting numbers are also in a state of great decline. For example, in 2002 Tanzania exported 228 lion trophies. In 2011 this had declined to 55 – perhaps because of years of overhunting in the concessions. One report indicates that neighbouring concessions even “poach” lions from each other as well as engaging in other excesses (http://www.africahunting.com/content/2-hunting-tanzania-384/).

Overall, Tanzania needs to take a long, hard look on how to improve her record of wildlife conservation. After the shock of finding out the extent to which Tanzania’s elephant populations have declined due to rampant poaching, the wildlife authorities need to take stock of other species as well. Counts need to be conducted for commercially important species and until those are completed, there should be a trophy hunting moratorium imposed.

The hunting industry and the photographic tourism industry both need to be better regulated. Photographic tourist organizations need to ensure they contribute better to the costs of maintaining Tanzania’s wildlife. For the last ten years at least calls have been made for better self-regulation in the hunting industry but these have not been met with substantive changes (http://www.wildlife-baldus.com/download/influence_of_corruption_on_hunting.pdf). Tanzania also needs to ensure that government funds derived from wildlife income are properly allocated to wildlife conservation.

The Tanzanian government is entrusted with stewardship of wildlife resources for future generations. It is time for positive changes that will ensure this trust is met.


Picture credit: www.arkive.org


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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 13:51

Botswana participated in the 2008/2009 CITES authorized sale of ivory to China and Japan. What happened to the money earned?


                                                           Used to conserve elephants?

In 2008, four southern African countries (Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia) were given permission to sell part of their ivory stockpiles to China and Japan.  Botswana sent 16,682kg to Japan and 26,488kg to China. 

 From an impeccable source in Botswana, the following additional details have come to light:

  • The ivory was sold at an average price of $163 per kilo, earning a total of $7,036,710. 
  • The Chinese buyers of the ivory were listed as BEIJING MAMMOTH ART COMPANY, No. 92 Zao Lin Street, Minute Temple Si feng, Gong si, Feng Tai District, Beijing; and CHINA NATIONAL  ART AND CRAFT, No. 101 Fuxing Men Nei Street, Beijing. 

 These companies do not appear on a quick Google search, but do appear to be independent companies and not State organizations authorized by CITES to import raw ivory. Why is that?


Further, the revenue earned from these sales was deposited into a government administered account called the Conservation Trust Fund (CTF). Its primary use is for elephant conservation projects and community projects in the elephant range.

 The CTF was established specifically in 1999 after the tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held in Zimbabwe. It was at this conference that the elephant population of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were down-listed to Appendix II with some conditionality for a once-off sale of ivory stocks. 

 Decisions 10.1 and 10.2 at the CoP indicated that all funds accrued from the sale of ivory to Japan, the first recipient of legal ivory, should be deposited into a Trust Fund which would be used exclusively for elephant conservation and development projects for communities living within the elephant range. Hence the Conservation Trust Fund was established to ensure that the proceeds of ALL ivory sales were going to benefit conservation of Botswana’s elephants. This requirement was also maintained for the second round of ivory sales.

 According to a Botswana Government website 

“the Fund is administered by a Board of Trustees appointed by the minister of Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism. It is apportioned in such a way that seventy percent (70%) of the total revenue is ploughed back into elephant conservation and this includes such projects as follows: monitoring of elephant populations movement, water development. These projects will be principally be conducted by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks but may also be extended to private researchers.

 The remaining thirty percent of the revenue from ivory stock sales goes to Community Development projects. These are the communities that are paying a price of living side by side with elephants. It is anticipated that projects will add value to conservation so that people will better appreciate wildlife as a natural resource.”


Since 2008, five Community Based Organizations have benefitted from the CTF with a total funding of $278,621. These were:

  • The Shorobe Community Development Trust (Development of Management and Business Plan for Tourism sites in NG 35); 
  • Sankoyo Tshwaragano Management Trust (Review and Alignment of Management Plan for Controlled Hunting Area NG 34 for Non Consumptive Utilization);
  • Okavango Jakotsha Community Trust (Development of a Management and Business Plan for Wildlife Management Area NG 24); 
  • Cgae-Cgae Tlhabololo Development Trust (Borehole drilling & equipping and water reticulation in NG 4); 
  • Mapanda Trust (Perimeter fence of Lepokole hills).  


This would imply that the balance in the CTF from the 2008 sale alone is about $6,758,089; in other words only a very small part of the money earned has been spent to date. In addition, while the CTF does have an elephant conservation component as well as a community component, it does not appear that ANY funds have been spent on elephant conservation. 


If the CITES approved sales were to benefit elephant conservation, where is the proof? I would urge Botswana to provide additional information I might not have been supplied with. 


In addition, I would request similar information from Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. How was your ivory sale money spent? This perhaps particularly relevant because the highly controversial auction to trophy hunt a black rhino held by the Dallas Safari Club generated $350,000 to be placed in Namibia’s Game Products Trust Fund. This was supposed to be earmarked specifically for rhino conservation in Namibia.  

Transparency breeds confidence. If ivory stockpile sales are not benefiting elephant conservation then there is another very compelling reason not to allow them in the future.  



Picture credit: news.bbc.uk



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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 19:28

What to do with confiscated ivory?

Sunday 23rd February 2014

 What to do with confiscated ivory?


                                                                             Now what?

Recently, the destruction of seized ivory stockpiles has been much in the news. The Philippines, USA, France, Chad, Gabon, China, among others, have all destroyed such illegal ivory. It seems that Tanzania and Hong Kong are contemplating destroying part of their stockpile while Kenya remains silent on the issue.

 Prince William has allegedly said he wants all the ivory held in Royal collections destroyed, a complicated move as much of that ivory comes under the category of gifts to the Crown. Many of the crown jewels are also gifts, for example the Cullinan Diamond – from South Africa, and the Koh-i-Noor diamond – from India. Saudi Arabian kings have also made many valuable gifts of jewellery. But these gifts do not belong to the monarch who happens to receive them – they are held in trust for their descendants and the Nation. It would take many steps to be able to fulfil William’s alleged wish – likely including approval by Parliament. 

 Meanwhile, ivory destruction has received many positive and negative feedbacks. On the positive side, many say these acts indicate a zero tolerance of any ivory trade, rendering the ivory useless and out of possible circulation forever. Those arguing against say that it is a waste and only serves as a publicity stunt - and by taking such ivory off any potential market, it only increases the rarity value of ivory and sends prices higher.

 Those opposed to destroying ivory say that placing a complete ban on any product has always been problematic  in the past, citing failures to control illegal trade in drugs, tobacco and alcohol. 


So what is the answer? I don’t have one, but let’s examine some fallacies in arguments always being trotted out. 

 First, you cannot equate the illegal trade of ivory with the illegal trade in drugs and alcohol. The latter are addictive substances and addicts behave very differently from buyers of ivory. Ivory buyers in China, for example, buy the product because it has always been rare, expensive and is closely associated with a visible display of wealth and status. Plus it has significant “cultural” value, both in terms of the status of owning ivory and the status of the top ivory carvers, celebrated as Rembrandts of their art. As just one example, those masters make intricate hollowed out ivory balls. Some have dozens of layers, cased one on top of another, each able to revolve. That said, most ivory “carvings” are sold as simple bangles, rings and chopsticks. 

 In other places, for example the Philippines and Thailand, ivory carvings have religious values as diverse as the teachings of Catholicism and Buddhism. The Vatican is stuffed with ivory icons, and it is not only in the Philippines that religious icons made of ivory are currently being sold. That can also be called a cultural value of ivory.

 Drugs and alcohol can also have a status value. For example, there are various “grades” of cocaine and associated value. For marijuana, the Oracle strain which is supposedly has a 45% content of THC is being sold at a price of $200 per SEED! As for showing off wealth, you can hardly do better than serving your guests a jeroboam of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine at $114,000 per bottle or a 1926 Macallan Rare and Fine whisky at $75,000 per bottle. 

 But those prices are based either on antiquity and/or rarity. In actual fact, drugs and alcohol can be supplied in quantities that exceed any form of demand. Alcohol is simple to make in vast quantities (all you need is a form of starch from wheat, potatoes, corn or sugar from grapes and add some yeast). Cocaine, heroin and marijuana come from plants. Laboratories can easily put together the chemical components of LSD and Ecstacy and make huge quantities. Ivory can only be made by elephants and they take a very long time to make their tusks. 

 Second, the drug trade is by definition illegal (although marijuana has been legalized in some places and possession of small quantities of cocaine for personal use is usually not frowned upon). But what this means is that if you are found with large quantities of drugs you will be prosecuted and jailed. 

 With ivory, it is not so simple as there are various categories of legal trade. The age of the ivory makes a difference – antiques are OK although defined differently in different countries and huge loopholes exist. China and Thailand openly trade in ivory, though much of the trade probably involves illegal ivory. There is a reluctance by authorities in those countries to use currently available techniques to differentiate legal from illegal ivory. For example, Thailand was not among the registered buyers of African ivory, so any product found with African origin should result in criminal procedures. In China, any ivory determined to be from a western or eastern African origin is by definition illegal. It is well documented that both nations continue to receive and trade illegal ivory but because they have a legal trade the illegal ivory becomes easily incorporated and subsumed. 

 Third, despite the existence of CITES, there are no internationally accepted norms and standards of what to do with ivory seized from illegal trafficking. This clearly needs to be decided, and quickly. Illegally trafficked drugs, alcohol and tobacco are only kept (well, depending on the country) as long as it takes to serve as evidence in criminal trials and then destroyed. Same with illegally trafficked weapons.

 Fourth, it has always been argued by those African range states which have a good record of elephant conservation (a shrinking community) that ivory resulting from natural deaths of elephants should be available for trade. That was the argument that allowed “one-off” ivory sales from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia in the past, especially since the profits from the sales were supposed to go straight back into elephant conservation. 

 But that proof still remains to be established. Accounting of those funds remains at best opaque and at worst completely obscure. If the promises to those who approved the ivory sales are to be met, then why do we still not have a full record of how those funds were spent? Unless there is complete transparency, the justifications given and accepted by CITES for legal ivory sales will continue to ring hollow and should qualify as reasonable worries to oppose future sales. 


In sum, it all seems a mess.

  • Does the value of ivory in circulation increase with the destruction of stockpiles seized from illegal traffickers?   Yes.
  • Is the answer a trade of such ivory? I do not believe so – illegal trade products should not be returned to the market. 
  • Has the legal trade in ivory via the CITES sales decreased poaching and increased levels of elephant protection? No. 
  • Should there be further sales of legal ivory from stockpiles? No, as there has not been a proven conservation benefit in the past for elephants from such sales despite promises
  • Should ivory trade be banned? Yes, completely, including within-country sales.              


Will a ban on ivory sales everywhere stop poaching? Not necessarily, as there will always be those speculators on the market to continue poaching and stockpiling. But with no “legal” markets it will then come down to a test of the political will and resolve of the African nations to adequately protect their elephants. A shift of responsibility in other words, and a challenge many elephant range states have yet to meet despite financial and other resources poured and pouring in. 



Picture credit: AFP/Getty images




If you have not already signed up to our mailing list, you can add your name here and keep up to date with our ongoing work and, most importantly, DONATE to support our work to conserve the remaining fragile lion populations. Thank you. 


Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 19:16

Doom for Africa's cheetahs?

Friday 21st February 2014

Doom for Africa's cheetahs?



                                                  Very fast, but can it outrun the challenges?

A recent poster by the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetahs and African Wild Dogs (RWCP) and the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) presented at the recent Symposium on International Wildlife Trafficking has some very worrying statistics on the illegal trade of live cheetahs and cheetah products. 

 The organizations estimate that about 10,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in Africa, many in small, scattered populations with an uncertain future. Most of those wild cheetahs occur in Namibia, and most of those on private land. Other organizations say about 7,500.

 Let’s begin with the illegal trade in live cheetahs. The above organizations estimate 118 cheetahs (largely cubs) were involved in 2012-2013 alone. Forty of the cases were recorded from northeastern Africa, where there is a well-recorded smuggling route involving Somalia and Yemen as transit countries for a ready market in the United Arab Republic. There have also been cases of live cheetah smuggling in the Middle East itself, and also in southern Africa – perhaps to supply the captive cheetah breeding industry in South Africa.

 Now let’s look at the “legal” trade in live cheetahs. Based on official CITES records, South Africa exported a total of 817 live cheetahs between 2002 and 2012 (records for 2012 are not yet complete). Major importing countries included UAE (130), China (101), Japan (79), Mexico (49) and, surprisingly the USA (110). Why the USA is importing that many live cheetahs is a mystery, but cheetahs do not breed well in captivity.  

 The other major exporting country for live cheetahs is the UAE. During that period they exported 77 animals – to Armenia (14), Great Britain (14) and France (10) among the leading importers. So the UAE is both a major importer and a major exporter of live cheetahs…

 However, another major legal CITES export category of cheetahs is hunting trophies and these all derive from Namibia. The numbers are quite staggering.  From 2002-2012 (again, the 2012 numbers are still being compiled) Namibia exported 1,219 cheetah trophies. Such trophies are likely to all be adult males, though such details are not available. 

 Major importing countries were Germany (318), France (145), Austria (119), Spain (79), Poland (57), Hungary (51) and Denmark (43). The USA does not allow cheetah trophy imports as cheetahs are a listed species on their Endangered Species Act. Why then does the European Union not prohibit imports?


How many cheetahs are there in Namibia to support such offtake? The CCF does not know but was working on it according to a report in 2012 . Informal estimates arrive at a total of “about 3,000”. 

 Let’s say there are 3,000 – 4,000 cheetahs in Namibia. What percentage are adult males? Let’s be generous and say 20% (the rest being females, subadults and cubs). That would mean 600-800 males in Namibia, being hunted at a rate of about 116 animals per year.  How can this be in any way “sustainable”?  CITES actually allows an export quota of 150 cheetahs annually – live, skins, trophies. This level of exports was negotiated by Namibia.

 So overall, the picture looks very worrying for cheetahs. Involved in illegal cub smuggling is only one concern. It is also disturbing that so many cheetahs are involved in the “legal” trade – many to dubious destinations. And then, Namibia is supporting a highly contentious level of trophy hunting to say the least. 

 If cheetahs are going to be conserved, it seems that conservation plans are in considerable disarray. Agonizing over the illegal wildlife trade is not convincing when the legal trade is undermining and confusing conservation efforts. The CCF supports cheetah trophy hunting as a conservation measure but must surely need to convince the Namibian authorities to bring their export quotas well down from current levels. 


Cheetah protection will demand carefully considered conservation measures. Right now it seems a formula bound to fail, and until proper assessments can be made there should be an immediate moratorium on all cheetah exports from Africa – live, skins and trophies.



 Photo credit:  http://bit.ly/1mirsmN   and Steve Bloom Images



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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 19:00

Is the illegal wildlife trade really funding international terrorism?


                                                                   What am I bid for a kilo?

This might seem a strange question, as there have been many mentions of this in the international media and by a diversity of politicians. For example:

 William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary: “We are even seeing evidence that it may be funding terrorism.”

 Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General:  “Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security in Central Africa.”

 Hilary Clinton, former US Secretary of State drew a direct link between terrorism and elephant poaching, citing growing evidence that terrorist groups in Africa are funding their activities in part by trafficking ivory. She said that includes al-Shabaab, the group responsible for the recent attack at a shopping mall in Nairobi.

Tuvako N. Manongi, Ambassador to the US for the United Republic of Tanzania: "Wildlife trafficking is increasingly associated with rebel and terrorist groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army and Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda terrorist cell in East Africa." 

 From the Los Angeles Times: “Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist group that killed dozens of people last month in a bloody four-day siege of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, is deriving funds for its terror campaigns from elephant poaching in Kenya and elsewhere, activists and conservationists claim.”

 From Save the Rhino: “Three years ago, the Elephant Action League (EAL) conducted an 18-month undercover investigation into the link between Al-Shabaab and the illegal trafficking of ivory through Kenya. The organisation published its findings, which suggested that Al-Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory to fund its militant operations and that ivory trafficking “could be supplying up to 40% of the funds needed to keep them in business”.’’

 From the UK Daily Mirror – “The lethal combination of wildlife destruction and terrorism is the reason 50 world leaders have been invited to next week’s London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade, hosted by Prime Minister David Cameron.”


But … from Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution: “… terrorism is not proliferating because of poaching. Terrorism is driven by its own enabling factors, which are varied and complex. Poaching has nowhere is the world generated new terrorists … it is equally crucial to acknowledge that much poaching – in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa – takes place in the absence of violent conflicts and are nor carried out by terrorists or other armed groups.”


So where does the “evidence” come from that ivory poaching funds terrorism? This is where things start becoming unclear and frankly, a bit shaky. 

The report about Al-Shabaab’s involvement in ivory trafficking originated from Andrea Crosta, CEO of the Elephant Action League and Nir Kalron of Maisha Consulting in Kenya. Both list experience and expertise in security and anti-terrorism investigations. The original report was published in 2011 after an “18 month investigation”. Initial media reports indicated the investigation was at the behest of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a trusted and reliable organization. Today, Mary Rice, Executive Director of EIA told me that they were not involved. 


In the original report on their website, the Elephant Action League state, inter alia:

  1. .“We went undercover in Kenya to investigate some of the links in the ivory trafficking chain leading to al-Shabaab. The investigation uncovered a sophisticated network of poachers, small and big-time brokers, and informants, all linked to the trade in ivory and rhino horn. Our enquiries reached across the border into neighboring Somalia where we established a link between the traders and al-Shaabab. According to our inside sources, Shabaab has been actively buying and selling ivory as a means of funding their militant operations.
  2. In effect, ivory serves as one of the lifelines of al-Shabaab, enabling it to maintain its grip over young soldiers, most of who are not radically motivated. According to a source within the militant group, between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo, pass through the ports in southern Somalia every month.
  3. A quick calculation puts Shabaab’s monthly income from ivory at between US$200,000 and US$600,000. Maintaining an army of roughly 5,000 men, each earning US$300 USD, demands at least US$1,500,000 a month, of which the ivory trade can supply a big chunk of it.”

That “quick calculation” and information from “a source” has become the basis for the oft-quoted figure that the Al-Shabaab terrorist organization derives 40% of their income from illegal ivory trafficking. A LionAid request to the Elephant Action League for verification of their investigation and the reliability of their “informants” has remained unanswered.

The 2011 report remained un-noticed for some time but was significantly revived after the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility and 62 people were killed; an immediate “link” was made between elephants poached in Kenya and funds required for the attack. 

Consequently, with endless repetition by the media, the Elephant Action League report has now become widely accepted with the 40% figure seemingly uncontested by editors. “Combating terrorism” is a tactic long used to justify all manner of responses ranging from invasions of privacy to invasions of countries. Will it distract from the more significant involvement of organized criminal networks, corrupt officials and private individuals out to make a quick buck from ivory? I would say terrorist organizations are hardly significant. Yes, they will use ivory as a means of income, but their graduation to major players in the illegal ivory trade is misplaced according to all indicators. 


Implicating terrorist organizations in the illegal ivory trade is a significant charge – is China, by importing 70% of the illegal ivory trafficked in the world, therefore supporting terrorism? Let’s hope that the Elephant Action League will provide more evidence than “quick calculations”. 
















Picture credit: http://bit.ly/1b5qqJA



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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 16:57

The rhino commodity market - how to turn big profits


                                                                         Buy low sell high


Wildlife in South Africa, except for that in private hands, belongs to the citizens. The government and provincial authorities are custodians on behalf of those citizens, and should ensure that wildlife is conserved for future generations. 

But how well are those authorities doing their job? Are private owners buying wildlife at auctions to make quick profits?

It is well known that neither the state nor the provinces are sufficiently supporting the national and regional parks to cover their conservation costs. To make ends meet, organizations like SANParks and Ezemvelo auction off “excess” wildlife to private owners. Profits are made – for example the most recent Ezemvelo auction netted over R8 million ($719,000). It is estimated that 75% of the income for Ezemvelo comes from game sales and most of the profit comes from auctioning rhinos. 

The sale of rhinos has an interesting history.  When the then Natal Parks Board began sales of rhinos to private owners, it was at a fixed price of about $900. During the same time, a trophy hunt could bring in as much as $15,000 – resulting in the inevitable trend that about 10% of rhinos sold were almost immediately trophy hunted.  

When the Parks Board turned to auctions instead of direct sales, the prices rose. Looking at prices from 1987 to 1991, rhinos were sold for an average of $15,163. The latest figures available, from 2010, show that during that year the average auction price was $30,464. 

But there are two very interesting trends. For example, in 1988 and in 2007, the auction price came within a few hundred dollars of the hunting price. The response by the private rhino owners was immediate. In 1988 the hunting price was an average of $15,351, but in 1989 it jumped to $34,990, an increase of 228% in one year. In 2007 the hunting price was an average of $32,000 but by 2008 it jumped to an average of $54,479, an increase of 170% in one year. The price increases had almost no effect on the number of hunters. 

Clearly, trophy hunting prices were not determined by any free market economy. Rather, the rhino owners agreed to raise the hunting cost by a process of price fixing whenever profits were threatened. Also, average auction prices remained remarkably static between 1989 (18,600) to 2006 ($20,710), perhaps an indication of pre-arranged bidding prices. The only time when auction prices fluctuated significantly was during the political transition 1993-1995, when average auction prices fell to $9,700. The number of trophy hunts during 1994 also rose by 169% over previous years, further reflecting market uncertainty. 

The second interesting trend concerns the number of rhinos auctioned versus the number hunted. From 2005-2010 the DEA recorded 1,380 rhinos sold on auction. During that same time the DEA revealed that 635 rhinos had been hunted. CITES export records tell a different story – during 2005-2010 CITES export records show that 458 horns (equal to 229 hunted rhinos) and 1,020 hunting trophies were exported for a total of 1,249 rhinos shot. This in itself is quite interesting. But it means that according to the DEA 46% of the number of rhinos auctioned were hunted, while the CITES export records show that as many as 90% were hunted. While it cannot be shown that these were the same rhinos bought on auction and then hunted shortly thereafter, it does strongly suggest that there could be a direct pipeline for wild rhinos to become hunted rhinos. The consistently maintained differences between auction and hunting prices ensure good and substantial profits.

Apart from the profits to be made by Ezemvelo and SANParks from selling wild rhinos to private owners, these organizations have indicated that the reason for the auctions is to increase the herds of this threatened species. In effect they say that the protected areas are at capacity for rhinos, and to conserve the species better, more land is required for rhinos – private land.

However, the data reveals that private owners are earning substantial profits from turning wild rhinos into cash cows. Indeed, one of the most important aspects determining the auction price fetched by a rhino is allegedly the size of the horn and whether it is a male that can be trophy hunted. 

It also shows how South Africa’s wildlife is being mined out of the nationally protected areas to be turned into profits for a small minority of citizens. The authorities have some explaining to do. 


Picture credit: http://on-msn.com/1eiKatB


Main data source: Milliken, T. and Shaw, J. (2012). The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus: A deadly combination of institutional lapses, corrupt wildlife industry professionals and Asian crime syndicates. TRAFFIC, Johannesburg, South Africa.



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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 19:56

Canned tigers?

Monday 27th January 2014

Canned tigers?


                                                        Welcome to Indochina South Africa


 Many of you will probably know about the “tiger farms” in China that breed tigers to supply skins and potions like tiger bone wine. There is considerable outrage about these farms internationally, not only because of the conditions under which the tigers are kept, but also because of the ethics of breeding animals for their body parts. 

 I wrote a short blog on the issue in September 2012.

 Earlier that year I also wrote a blog about the tiger breeding that goes on in South Africa

 Despite these blogs, and raising the issue at various meetings with UK Members of Parliament and Defra, there continues to be silence and complacency about the SA tiger farms. There, tigers are raised for live export to a number of countries including the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar and Vietnam. During the ten years 2002-2011, a total of 170 live tigers were exported to such dubious destinations. But perhaps more strangely, tigers in SA are also available to be trophy hunted. 


 It is the only place left in the world where you can go and trophy hunt a tiger. I have not been able to determine how much a tiger hunt costs, but it would appear to be substantial. Over the ten years 2002 – 2011, CITES records indicate that 17 tiger trophies were exported (not re-exported) and that the source was captive-bred tigers.


 Who would want to hunt a captive bred tiger? The trophies went to the United Arab Emirates (6), Norway (3), Poland (2) and one each to Spain, Germany, France, Lebanon, Pakistan, and an unnamed country. 


Apart from needing a CITES export permit, these trophies do not need the usually necessary import permits required for a species listed on CITES Appendix I as they are hunting trophies and therefore “personal and household effects”.  Also, since these are privately owned exotic animals in South Africa, they further escape much regulatory notice. 


Meanwhile, tiger breeders must be enjoying their “niche market” in South Africa out of the public eye?



Picture credit: http://bit.ly/19XfsF2


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Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 15:20