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

Spare a thought for hippos

Friday 26th September 2014


Best lie low


Hippos have decreased hugely in Africa – they are a popular bushmeat item and cause much conflict with humans as they destroy crops. Consequently, it is difficult to find many hippos in large stretches of African rivers and lakes where they used to occur in numbers. You would be very hard pressed to find a hippo on the three largest lakes in Africa – Victoria, Tanganyika, and Nyassa (Malawi). I did biodiversity research on all those lakes in the 1990s and travelled huge expanses of the lake by boat but hardly saw a hippo.

Hippos are also unfortunate that their teeth are increasingly used in the legal and illegal ivory trade (ivory is not just about elephants!).

And the trade in hippo ivory is perfectly legal, although there is also a significant illegal trade of poached animals. How much legal hippo ivory enters the market? Over the ten years 2003-2012 exports from African countries indicate that 93,445 kg of hippo ivory and 35,763 teeth (mostly the large canines of which hippos have four) were exported. As a conservative estimate, I would say this represents about 27,000 hippos. These hippos came largely from the usual suspects like Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Tanzania – but significant numbers were also exported from Malawi, Uganda and Mozambique. By far most of this ivory ends up in Hong Kong.

There is also a major skin trade involving hippos. From 2003 to 2012, African nations like Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, among others, exported 13,996 skins, 46,305 square feet of skins, and 7,367 square meters of skins. Are all those skins from the hippos killed for their ivory?

In addition, hippos also seem a popular trophy for trophy hunters. In the 20 years 1993-2012, a total of 11,444 hunting trophies were exported, mostly from Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Of that total, 30% came from Tanzania, a seemingly popular destination for hippo trophy hunters.

Hippos are not particularly difficult to hunt – with a powerful rifle and an accurate telescopic sight, all you need to do is sit by water and wait for them to emerge. The only difficulty posed is that if you only wound a hippo they will run back into the water and die there. Difficult to then recover your trophy, and perhaps necessitating shooting another one.

How many hippos remain in Africa? Good question as nobody really knows. Anyone ever heard of a hippo survey? One that was conducted in the DRC in 2003 showed that the Virunga population had been decimated from 29,000 thirty years ago to 1,300. One wonders, over ten years on, how many of those remain.

Current estimates vary, but a conservative estimate would indicate that not more than 70-90,000 hippos remain on the entire continent. The IUCN classifies hippos as valuable and CITES lists them on Appendix II – without much knowledge of their current populations and rates of decline. In addition, western African hippos deserve their own taxonomic status.

The high level of hippo ivory involved in trade, trophy hunting offtake, habitat loss, human conflict and bushmeat offtake all add up to a sad future for hippos – and I would argue in favour of adding Hippopotamus amphibius to be added to our list of gravely threatened animals.

Picture credit:  http://bit.ly/1myASyO 


Add a comment | Posted by Chris Macsween at 18:49

 In preparing an overall trophy hunting report for Africa, I was again reminded of some very strange happenings in South Africa. It has to do with the numbers of “wild” lion trophies exported over the past ten years, and the paltry few lions available to make up such exports. Let me explain.



South Africa, according to various reports, has anywhere between 2130 and 3852 wild lions. In case you should be worried, all these lion populations are behind fences. There have been a number of “private reserves” established, one of them next to the Sun City entertainment resort, where lions have been introduced from Namibia to add entertainment to game drives. Then there are a few National Parks with lions - notably Kruger that boasts over 2000 lions within the very large reserve. And then of course there are “game ranches” that offer lion hunting, but these are all derived from a captive population of well over 4000 lions specifically bred for trophy hunting. CITES (the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora – a watchdog organization that is supposed to strictly regulate trade in endangered and vulnerable species and that is about as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane) therefore has two categories of lions exported as trophies from South Africa: “ranched/captive bred” and “wild”.



Now if you should happen to peruse the CITES trade website (perhaps when there is nothing good on TV) you will see that South Africa exported a total of 2651 “wild” lion trophies between 2000 and 2009 when reliable records end. This is a puzzlement. You see, South Africa just does not have that many wild lions in hunting concessions. Sure, some of the concessions directly bordering on Kruger Park allow trophy hunting (good deal, they took down the original border fence between Kruger and the concession, so wildlife flows in and out – one minute in a hunting area, next in a protected area). Also, some of the private reserves allow trophy hunting of their excess lions (not advertised to the tourists). But that, really, is about it.



There is not much of a price difference between hunting a canned lion versus a “wild” lion, but “real” hunters turn up their noses at any lion that has a sniff of captive breeding – they want what they are promised – a wild one, and not a “wild” one within the past 2 or 3 days. South Africa has fast and loose designations – according to their regulations, any captive bred lion turned loose in a field with a few antelopes is “deemed” to be wild. So last week it was a captive animal and a few days later it is wild. Quite convenient.



But let’s give the hunters the benefit of the doubt. Are there any “wild” lions to be hunted in South Africa? In any truly wild population, about 15% of the lions are adult males, about 35% adult females, and the rest subadults and cubs. So if you take the wildly optimistic figure of 3852 wild lions in South Africa, that means only 578 are adult males. Then say that optimistically that 5% of those males occur in hunting concessions (contiguous with National Parks) -  so 29 males provide an average trophy offtake over the past ten years of 265 “wild” trophies per annum. I should point out that South Africa also exported 3024 “captive/ranched” lion trophies over the past ten years to 2009.



You are by now beginning to get my point. A famous parallel could be made with Burundi, a densely populated country that perhaps had a handful of elephants (some say one). From 1973 to 1982, 300 tonnes of ivory were exported from Burundi to Belgium (before the 1990 ivory ban). Later, Burundi was allowed to export another 89.5 tonnes of stockpiled ivory by CITES. Quite amazing how so few can provide so much.



So where do all those “wild” lions exported from South Africa come from? There are three explanations. The first is that those lions are regularly placed in South Africa by aliens from a distant planet. We can sort of dismiss that possibility with apologies to those who firmly believe aliens walk among us. The second is that the lions are hunted illegally in neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique and declared in South Africa as resident lions. That has some degree of possibility. For example, there is evidence that in 2007 19 lions were shot but official CITES export numbers from Mozambique show only 15 exported from that country. In 2008, trophy fees were paid for 22 lions, but only 18 exported from Mozambique. The third, and most likely, is that captive bred lions are sold to clueless clients as “wild” lions. It’s quite easy really – bring a client to a hunting “concession”, let him slog around for many days, secretly buy a lion from a breeder, set it out in the area, and then lead the client to it. Presto chango and the rabbit comes out of the hat. Virtually every single lion hunted in South Africa was bred in captivity. Going home and boasting you went on a “dangerous game” lion hunt in South Africa and registering your “wild” trophy for the SCI record books is a fallacy and a delusion. 



It is a wonderment that CITES and other relevant authorities have not picked up on this discrepancy. I will surely lose sleep over all those poor clients (71% of South African “wild” lion trophies end up in the USA, a country seemingly stuffed with gullible hunters). South African operators and professional hunters have played you well. Caveat emptor for all you credulous clients who will doubtless flock to the next SCI convention in 2012 and sign up for some more “wild” lion hunts in South Africa. Those of you with “wild” trophies, perhaps consider a lawsuit for having been sold falsely advertised goods, and SCI – take all those “wild” lions hunted in South Africa off your record books, recall your awards and rings and whatever other honours you bestow. You have all been duped.





Add a comment | Posted by Pieter Kat at 17:24