The Real Story Behind the Lion Kings of Africa
Simba - our beloved lion king of Disney returns to the screen in photo-realistic computer-generated imaging, grossing over $700M worldwide.
We watched it with kids around the world the first time it was released in 1994, but did we know that over the past 25 years, lions were decimated in the wild by poaching, trophy hunting and human-wildlife conflict? By 2050, the only wild lions left will computer-generated imaging. US Fish And Wildlife predicts that lions will be extinct in the wild in just 30 years. Our love for Simba and his struggle can go far beyond the theater - it is our task to build the awareness around the challenge and harness support for the solutions.
By 2050, the only wild lions left will be computer-generated imaging.
Let's go to the underlying sources for why African lions are suffering from poaching, trophy hunting and human-wildlife conflict. Fundamentally it's about corruption, economics and poverty. Africa is a continent rich in natural resources - from oil and minerals, to an abundant of wildlife - yet a very small portion of those natural resources benefit the larger local communities of Africa. For a CNN article on the exploitation of Africa, Tom Burgis, a Financial Times Investigative Journalist, iterates that the machines that ran exploitation of African resources during colonial times are massively pervasive today in the post-independence era. In his book, The Looting Machine, corrupt governments throughout Africa run the very corporations that garner secret offshore deals that extract resources out of Africa to benefit a handful of players. The Panama Papers are 11+ million leaked documents that implicate over 214,488 foreign entities in shady offshore dealings. The Panama Papers revealed massive corruption of African oligarchs who are stealing billions of dollars of their country's resources by setting up systemic power structures to ensure their families and friends are favored in secret deals. In Mozambique, generals control all the license for ruby mining - which control half of all the ruby production in the world. A UK company paid millions of dollars in ruby royalties but not a penny was recorded as returned to the public coffers. In Botswana, political leaders jostle over trophy-hunting and eco-tourism, while the underlying economic disparities that fail to provide alternatives to impoverished communities are not addressed. Multinational corporations can also be unawaringly complicit in these dealings - further deepening the cycle of poverty in Africa. As a result, very large swaths of African communities have no running water, sewer systems or access to education. In Nairobi-Kenya, Kibera is the largest sub-saharan African slum in the world, it is home to ~2M people who live in shacks with no sewer systems. Only until recently were two main pipes with running water installed, one by the World Bank and one by the municipal government.
The corruption in Africa has kept the abundant of wealth and natural resources in the hands of a few players - while the majority of Africans are barely subsisting. The average monthly salary in Kenya is $122 as compared to $453 in South Africa. Multinational companies can do more to outline and insist on community projects in their contracts, rather than hand over royalties to shady politicians, generals and businesses that never make their way back to local communities.
Illegal wildlife trading is a multi-billion dollar industry. The complex network of international smugglers themselves are harder to catch - they are organized international gangs that span countries around the world. Earlier this year, Operation Thunderball - based in Singapore, arrested some 600 suspects in one of the largest crackdown on illegal wildlife trading. Interpol and the World Customer Organizations coordinated efforts across 109 countries seized over 2000 animals deemed as protected wildlife. Generally, the local villager is the one that gets caught, as he or she is trying to put food on the table for their families. Poaching lions for their teeth, claw and bones is a fast and relatively easy way for a local villager to earn $1000 - $2000.
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, as quoted in the NYTimes, "Lion bones are used to make what’s marketed as tiger bone wine, a luxury, while claws and teeth are turned into jewelry." (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/15/science/lion-bones-poaching.html) The largest consumers of tiger and lion bones are Asia.
In addition to poaching, trophy-hunting and "canned" hunting of lions are popular among wealthy patrons. In many parts of Africa, trophy-hunting is legal, as long as it is not in the protected reserves or national wildlife parks. In 2015, the trophy-hunting of Cecil the Lion - a beloved lion in Zimbabwe, was lured from his reserve at night and shot by an arrow by an American dentist for sport for $54,000. Cecil's story caused a worldwide uproar and brought some awareness to the horrors of trophy hunting. Recent findings showed Cecil suffered tremendously from 12 hours of an initial bow & arrow injury by an effort by the hunter to obtain a permit for exporting the animal under a bow & arrow kill.
According to a study done by the Congressional Research Service in 2019 on trophy-hunting, the average hunting fees for wildlife range from $4,812 to $45,013, depending on the wildlife you kill. An African Leopard averages a $23K trophy-hunting fee as compared to $33K for a male African Lion. Apparently African Lionesses are only $7K. The trophy-hunting business benefits only a select few players, yet, it depletes valuable eco-tourism land that could generate economic growth for larger communities throughout Africa.
An African Leopard averages a $23K trophy-hunting fee as compared to $33K for a male African Lion. Apparently African lionesses are only $7K.
In one study, land dedicated to trophy-hunting of wildlife accounted for more than 22% of land than was dedicated to wildlife reserves and national parks. Countries like Kenya have banned trophy-hunting altogether in 1977 and shifted to eco-tourism - which has generated much more sustainable development and economic growth in other areas as a result. Yet established networks still make it very difficult for local villagers to have substantial share in most of the wildlife tourism businesses. Corruption and secret trading agreements prevent the larger government bans of trophy-hunting in many African countries. But it is the greater demand for trophy-hunting that essentially drives the industry's continual existence.
The United States is the #1 importer of trophy-hunting wildlife in the world, ten times that of China. Not only does the United States Trophy-Hunting demand hurt wildlife in Africa, it also impacts wildlife in Canada, New Zealand and Argentina. (https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R45615.pdf)
The United States is the #1 importer of trophy-hunting wildlife
And finally, the human and wildlife conflict is also decimating lions in the wild. Human populations are growing and expanding in Africa, while protected wildlife land is shrinking. As more land is devoted to wildlife trophy-hunting, existing wildlife are overcrowded in reserves and national parks. As a consequence, wildlife in reserves and parks begin to attack neighboring villages and farms. Some lions have been known to attack cattle on farms and people themselves. One Cameroon villager reported that 53 of his cattle were killed by lions in a 2 week period.
Lions have killed herders while they are roaming the plains with their livestock. While generations of lions have killed thousands of villagers over several decades. As human populations grow and expand, lion territories have diminished, causing the greater clash between the two groups. Some villagers have also had entire families killed and eaten by lions in their homes. Unfortunately, once a lion has tasted human blood, its desire only grows greater and it can never go back to not hunting humans. According to National Geographic, "between 1932 and 1947, three generations of lions killed 1,500 people in the Njombe District in southern Tanzania...Their strategy to lure people out of their homes and then attack them is similar to how lions hunt other prey. The cubs within a pride learn to hunt by imitating the lionesses."
Villagers are devastated and retaliate by killing many lions by poison. Poison kills not only the impacted lion, but also other lions and wildlife. Wildlife conservation groups have worked closely with many communities to kill the specific lion, in order to prevent the large swath of revenge killings of many lions by poison.
Villages near and around reserves and parks suffer the most from lion attacks. They depend heavily on grazing livestock, which can be decimated by lions in a matter of weeks. The lack of educational and economic opportunities force villagers to stay in livestock grazing and villagers tend to have larger families to help take care of farming and/or livestock. Fewer have resources or education to become entrepreneurs in eco-tourism or find better jobs in the cities. If these villagers have ways to benefit economically from the eco-tourism of maintaining lions in the wild, their existence and motivations would lean towards preserving lions in their communities. Temporary solutions encourage villagers to put fencing around their livestock - but the greater economic disparities is at the source of the problem.
Economic disparities in Africa and the control of economic wealth in a handful of players make it very difficult for villagers to have alternatives to maintaining their livelihood. Countries like Costa Rica have progressed tremendously in establishing eco-tourism for the economic growth and prosperity of local communities. But Costa Rica has abolished its military decades ago and has dedicated these funds to education and healthcare - giving its people one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
We can continue to support the development and tourism that hurts Africa or we can support the tourism and programs that give a wider proportion of wealth to the local communities.
References on the Panama Papers: