Rational balances in tourism, farming and biodiversity

09Aug 2019
Michael Eneza
Dar es Salaam
The Guardian
Rational balances in tourism, farming and biodiversity

TO what extent is it shocking news that there are just around 22,000 wild lions left in Africa, on the basis of recent draft analysis on the fragility of the continent’s lion populations?

Maasai communities have lived in harmony within the rich ecosystems of East Africa for centuries. File photo

That was the big or trending story among conservationists at the start of the week, reacting to a draft report titled ‘State of the Lion: Fragility of a Flagship Species,’ by Amy Dickman and Amy Hinks from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford.

The report calmly observes that wild lions have vanished from 95 per cent of their historic range but it is unlikely that the ‘historic range’ is a shared ideal, a wild Africa.

Detailing the situation, the report elaborates that in countries like Malawi, approximate wild lions stand at  five in total, 30 in Nigeria, 25 in Angola, 22 in Rwanda and 20 in Niger, which means that conservation enthusiasts follow the tendency in lion numbers the way one follows patients in hospital, as to who is taken out of intensive care, and who is finally released from the ward.

They hence also noticed that countries with larger lion populations include Tanzania (8176), Kenya (1825), Mozambique (1295), South Africa (2070), Zimbabwe (1709) and Zambia (1095). Here too it appears that discomfort prevails.

Some data in the report were somewhat tantalizing, for instance to suggest that there are more wild rhinos than wild lions, while everyone had heard how prized are rhino and elephant tusks, and little of the same can be said for lions.

Other figures in the report which may to an extent appear curious include an observation that there are 14 times more African elephants and wild gorillas than wild lions and nearly 350 000 people for every one wild lion.

The part about elephants was definitely surprising as they are more assiduously hunted while lions are acute foes if feed on cattle or kill people, not in the wilderness.

The report’s observations provide some clues to grapple with the situation, either as to how far one ought to regret the situation that lion numbers have excessively diminished, though one wonders if this is a real concern for farmers in the ‘wilderness’ or rural areas to be more accurate. Chances are that this is not the case, while the study says that 40 per cent of current wild lion range is in protected areas while 14 per cent of wild lion populations don’t overlap at all with protected areas. That means for each 100 lions in the wild, 14 are likely to feed on cattle or kill a human being at any moment, the report authors are still creating an impression that there are far too few lions. Would bigger numbers kill less people, cattle?

The report does not provide details on anguish and bitterness on lion impact on marginal populations near protected but unfenced areas and thus exposed to lion attack with relative ease, but look at the issue from lion s’ point of view.

‘The major threats to Africa’s lions are the loss and degradation of habitat, bushmeat snaring and conflict with people when lions threaten them or their livestock,’ it said, quoting one of the report experts.

How far should Africa be safe for lions and indeed how many, is a question that makes analyses of lion populations sound distantly colonial in character, unrealistic idealism as to what is good.

While there are solutions being pushed to sort out the conflict between lions and habitats especially near protected areas,  there is a lacuna that is vivid enough, but doesn’t come straight to the eye until one starts to think of dynamics.

Would current demarcations withstand population expansion, and when people need land, it is practical to say that national parks ought not to be touched? For that matter does Tanzania in particular have too much land under protection or should it be opening more reserves, as we did recently?

These questions are scarcely raised in public discussion or say in the legislature, as they belong to relatively different areas, both of which have their specific assumptions.

One side of those assumptions is the wildlife range aspect, which is a strong argument because tourism is the leading foreign exchange earner, and perhaps likely to remain so for a while to come, industrialization efforts notwithstanding.

The other side is the farming dimension, which by definition ought to be located in non-reserved areas, but with land diminishing there ia plenty of encroachment and more use of marginal land near conservation areas, which means people crawl too close to lions; have themselves to blame if they are within ‘range.’

It is hence not altogether convincing that protecting reserved areas is the key to maintaining habitat, in which case what is needed is proper funding and astute management of such areas, as well as bringing the population to alternative means of obtaining resources, for instance cutting back on bushmeat by poultry initiatives. Sharing out the benefits of conservation appears the principal strategic outlook.

But if we have an economy where rising population means widening farming acreage, how far is all of this sustainable?