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The Right Lion

Mar 25, 2013

This is clearly an older lion, showing a longer face and features that appear slightly “sunken.” The mane isn’t huge, but it’s clearly filled in behind and between the ears. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

This is clearly an older lion, showing a longer face and features that appear slightly “sunken.” The mane isn’t huge, but it’s clearly filled in behind and between the ears. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

This is clearly an older lion, showing a longer face and features that appear slightly “sunken.” The mane isn’t huge, but it’s clearly filled in behind and between the ears. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

As the saying goes, there is none so righteous as a repentant sinner. So let me start by saying that there was absolutely nothing right about my own first lion. He was a young pride male, and I shouldn’t have shot him. It was the last morning of a safari in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, and it was about the fourth time I’d attempted to take a lion, so far unsuccessfully. So it was a classic example of doing the wrong thing for all the wrong reasons. I’d passed young males like this before and should have passed again…but it was the last day, and I was desperate. Come to think of it, my professional hunter probably should have recommended that I pass this lion, but he didn’t…so we were both wrong.

I have no excuses and can offer nothing in mitigation except for this: That was 30 years ago, and we know a lot more now than we did then. Back then a lion was commonly on license on a 14 or 21-day safari. Sometimes you got one and sometimes you didn’t, but we believed there was no shortage of lions. Considering the difficulty I had taking my first lion, that probably wasn’t as true as we thought back then, but today we know better. Thanks primarily to the encroachment of cattle-raising humans, Africa’s lion population has fallen precipitously in the past 30 years.

Back then, too, we believed that a male lion taken from a pride would be quickly replaced. That was true, and is true today. What we didn’t appreciate was that, upon assuming leadership of (and mating rights to) a pride, a male lion often kills all the cubs. From an anthropomorphic point of view, one could believe that the male lion is unwilling to spend time and energy raising another lion’s progeny. Maybe, but the truth is probably simpler and more darkly pragmatic: Loss of her cubs brings a lioness into heat more quickly.

Exact age is usually uncertain, but this lion is a keeper. His mane is fully developed, and his face and body suggest full maturity. Even better, he’s alone. Don’t ask any more questions, just take him! (Photo by Dirk de Bod)

Exact age is usually uncertain, but this lion is a keeper. His mane is fully developed, and his face and body suggest full maturity. Even better, he’s alone. Don’t ask any more questions, just take him! (Photo by Dirk de Bod)

Exact age is usually uncertain, but this lion is a keeper. His mane is fully developed, and his face and body suggest full maturity. Even better, he’s alone. Don’t ask any more questions, just take him! (Photo by Dirk de Bod)

We also didn’t understand that a male lion’s opportunity to breed and lead a pride is actually very short. There are no firm rules here; some dominant males tolerate younger males within the pride, and there are many instances of males of similar size and strength—perhaps brothers—assuming a pride together. But a wild lion is probably not going to achieve his full strength (and growth of mane, whatever that is) until he is five or six years old. His life expectancy is rarely more than ten years, and he will probably be ejected from the pride by a younger, stronger male a couple of years earlier. So he’s fortunate if he’s able to hold a pride and breed more than two or three years–a short window.

SHOULD LIONS BE HUNTED?

Within Africa, the Kenyans, who have lost most of their own wildlife outside of their Parks in the 35 years since they closed hunting, are the most outspoken advocates of placing the lion on the Endangered Species list and closing all hunting. Externally, the lion is the new poster child for numerous anti-hunting groups.

Due to shrinking harvest quotas and ever-escalating costs, it is an unfortunate truth that many younger African hunters may never be able to hunt lion, whether available or not. I think this is sad, but it would be far sadder, and much more will be lost, if it is no longer possible to dream of hunting lion. However, if “uplisting” to CITES Appendix 1—“endangered”—would be good for the African lion, then I would be in favor of this move. I am not in favor, because I believe it would be a disaster.

John Dugmore with an awesome Botswana lion. Regrettably, Botswana lions are no longer hunted, and very few areas today produce manes of this quality. (Photo by John Dugmore)

John Dugmore with an awesome Botswana lion. Regrettably, Botswana lions are no longer hunted, and very few areas today produce manes of this quality. (Photo by John Dugmore)

John Dugmore with an awesome Botswana lion. Regrettably, Botswana lions are no longer hunted, and very few areas today produce manes of this quality. (Photo by John Dugmore)

The lion, although locally threatened in many areas (and erased from altogether too many) is not endangered…but placing him on the list would, in my view, be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Africa’s greatest National Parks the lion is secure, and is a major attraction for photographic safaris. With very few exceptions continent-wide Africa’s Parks are not hunted, no more than Yellowstone or Yosemite. In the Parks, the photographic safari industry places value on wildlife, and ensures a reasonable level of protection. We hunters happily safari to more marginal areas, where game densities and (often) diversities are much lower, areas where photographic safaris are unlikely to tread. Through license and trophy fees, local employment, and so much more, we place value on wildlife…and we place very high value on the opportunity to take a lion.

Many rural African groups still measure their wealth in livestock. Cattle are the most preferred currency, but they also raise goats, sheep, donkeys, camels and, more rarely, horses. Lions simply can’t help themselves: They love livestock. People who raise livestock do not love lions. Add to that the occasional incidence of maneating which, yes, still happens in rural Africa, and it’s understandable why rural Africans, often far removed from government, are likely to view lions as a dangerous nuisance. They may lack effective firepower to deal with specific problem lions, but they have extremely effective, if less discriminate, tools at their disposal: Poison, snares and traps. It takes significant value for the lion to be regarded as an asset rather than a dangerous nuisance.

Hunting adds that value. Kenya, which has not been a hunting country since 1977, has very few lions outside her National Parks. Tanzania, just to the south, has been hunted continuously since reopening in 1981 (after an eight-year closure). Tanzania, with lions “on license” for 32 years, has Africa’s largest lion population…and a huge stake in keeping lion hunting open. But right now the storm is gathering. Early in the year, Zambia, an important hunting country and important lion hunting country, closed both lion and leopard, and then closed hunting due to conflict over allocation of hunting areas. It is hoped that the closure is temporary, because it puts Zambia’s shrinking wild areas at great risk. Safari companies are primary stakeholders in anti-poaching efforts. After Kenya closed, the poachers moved in, and the last time Zambia was temporarily closed the poachers moved in. That will happen as night follows day.

This pride obviously has multiple males. The breeding dynamics of a pride with multiple males isn’t yet fully understood, but even though the lion on the right is a “keeper,” we now know that we have to steer clear of all pride males. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

This pride obviously has multiple males. The breeding dynamics of a pride with multiple males isn’t yet fully understood, but even though the lion on the right is a “keeper,” we now know that we have to steer clear of all pride males. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

This pride obviously has multiple males. The breeding dynamics of a pride with multiple males isn’t yet fully understood, but even though the lion on the right is a “keeper,” we now know that we have to steer clear of all pride males. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

However, for countries like Zambia and Tanzania, the closure of lion hunting is almost as serious as a complete closure. Both countries are expensive. Area fees are high, as are logistical costs and, while both countries hold a great variety of wildlife including many indigenous rarities, it is not clear to me that the safari industry in either country could survive without lion hunting. The costs are too high to compete in the plains game market, and there are equally productive and much less expensive countries for buffalo, leopard and even elephant.

So I think it is essential for the future of African hunting—and African wildlife—that lion hunting remains open. In order for that to happen we hunters—professional hunters and clients alike—must be as we have always been, the most self-limiting group on Earth. We must understand that we have to be more limited and more selective in our lion harvest, and we cannot commit or abide mistakes like I made on my first lion back in 1983. That means when going in, we have to accept significantly reduced chances for success, with a demonstrated, public and sincere collective attitude that we will take “the right lion”—or nothing.

SHOOT OLD LIONS

Perhaps the most important aspect of lion management is to not shoot pride males because of the infanticide issue.  However, the other part of this credo must be to only take “old” lions. Tanzania led the way in that movement by making it illegal (and not exportable) to take a lion less than six years old.

Realistically, provided the quota is conservative and is enforced, there is probably little harm done to the overall population in removing younger males that are hunting alone or with a brother. However, we hunters have always judged lions by quality of mane rather than size. The ability to grow luxurious manes is largely genetic, so a primary rationale for “shooting old lions” is to allow trophy-class lions to pass along their genes before they are harvested.

That may not be the ideal management criteria in all areas. There are a few areas where lions are overpopulated and are wreaking havoc with prey species. Quotas on lioness are a partial answer, and certainly it would be a good idea to harvest maneless males before they have a chance to breed. So there are complexities, but the general credo needs to be “shoot old lions.” That is not a perfect science. It is beyond the average safari hunter’s ability to properly age lions and, in fact, no professional hunter gets it perfect. In Tanzania it’s the law, so professional hunters can be expected to err on the side of caution, which is even better. It isn’t easy—perhaps not always possible—to accurately judge between a five, six or seven-year-old lion…but it’s very simple to tell a three or four-year-old lion from an old warrior of eight or more.

This lion is probably nine years old, a magnificent trophy…but he still has some pink on his nose.

This lion is probably nine years old, a magnificent trophy…but he still has some pink on his nose.

This lion is probably nine years old, a magnificent trophy…but he still has some pink on his nose.

Much of what little I know about this I learned from Michel Mantheakis, one of the best “cat men” I know; much has also come from Dirk de Bod, another awesome PH. We’ve looked at a lot of lions together. They look at the face, the body shape, and how completely the mane is “filled in” between and behind the ears. And they’re cautious, as lion hunters must be. It takes more than a casual glance, and there is no one definitive indicator. For instance, much has been made of this business of “pink on the nose,” which is said to be a foolproof indicator of immaturity.  Ron Bird’s lion from the Rungwa, is a “known lion” judged to be six years old and legal three years earlier. So when harvested, it was almost certainly a nine-year-old lion…with lots of pink on its nose. I have heard that the pink nose business is very valid in the Serengeti ecosystem, which I know nothing about—but it may be questionable elsewhere. In any case, this better not be the only indicator, because it requires an awfully close look in very good light!

One of our self-inflicted problems is our infatuation with the lion’s mane—even though skull measurements are (properly) the criteria by which lions enter the record book. Not all male lions are capable of growing a full mane, but for those who are, the fullness of the mane is definitely a sign of maturity…up to a point. Some lions continue to add to their manes throughout their lives, but many will display, “receding hairlines” in their declining years. Since the mane is almost certainly a sign of dominance and power, there is even some evidence that, if injured or ill, a lion may lose a lot of mane hair and, if he recovers, gain it back.

A good study of young lions. Although the manes differ considerably, these youngsters are probably three years old…and both have very good potential. Their faces are “smooth,” and their manes will probably continue to fill in. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

A good study of young lions. Although the manes differ considerably, these youngsters are probably three years old…and both have very good potential. Their faces are “smooth,” and their manes will probably continue to fill in. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

A good study of young lions. Although the manes differ considerably, these youngsters are probably three years old…and both have very good potential. Their faces are “smooth,” and their manes will probably continue to fill in. (Photo by Danny Bartlett)

My last lion was taken on a “problem lion” permit on the eastern edge of Etosha. At the time, he was very old, probably ten, scarred from nose to tail, and ejected from the pride. The property is a conservancy on the eastern edge of Etosha, and it definitely had a lion problem. There is a photo taken three years earlier of a mature lion that we believe to be the same lion. He has an unusually dark body and some distinctive highlights in the mane, but here’s what is interesting: As a six or seven-year-old lion, he had considerably more mane! That is not universal, but may be more common than we realize.

Young lion.

Young lion.

Young lion.

So neither mane nor blackness of nose are foolproof indicators. Instead, properly aging a lion is a subtle blend that includes the face (visually longer, probably scarred, Roman-nosed) and shape of body (showing a bit of belly, just like us!). Tracks are also important indicators, giving a good idea of traveling companions and size (although not necessarily age). Even presence within a pride is not a slam-dunk, because pride males are not necessarily with the pride “24/7.” In baiting situations, trail cameras are marvelous tools; in chance encounters extra care must be taken. The actual judging of a lion is beyond what we safari hunters can do or should be expected to do, so we must rely on our professional hunters. That isn’t easy, especially as the last days of an expensive safari wind down—but we must expect them to be knowledgeable and firm in their decisions. And we need to follow their guidance. Where an age limit is law, we must anticipate conservative judgment, which reduces our success. Where the law doesn’t specify an age limit our professional hunters have a bit more latitude…but the goal and our credo must remain the same: To take only older, non-pride males. If we all work together toward that goal, then I believe lion hunting in Africa can be saved. And I believe it must be saved.–Craig Boddington

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