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Illegal hunting threatens iconic animals across Africa’s great savannas, especially predators

Lion with a snare around its neck.  Photo by: Egil Droge/Zambian Carnivore Program. Courtesy of Panthera
Lion with a snare around its neck. Photo by: Frederike Otten. Courtesy of Panthera.

Bushmeat hunting has become a grave concern for species in West and Central Africa, but a new report notes that lesser-known illegal hunting in Africa’s iconic savannas is also decimating some animals. Surprisingly, illegal hunting across eastern and southern Africa is hitting big predators particularly hard, such as cheetah, lion, leopard, and wild dog. Although rarely targets of hunters, these predators are running out of food due to overhunting and, in addition, often becoming victims of snares set out for other species.

“Snaring is the most common illegal hunting method and is particularly undesirable from a conservation perspective as it is highly effective, difficult to control, unselective in terms of the genders or species of animals captured, wasteful, and has severe animal welfare implications,” reads the report which was co-authored by Panthera, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

The report finds that demand for bushmeat is growing in both eastern and southern Africa as populations boom–human populations in Africa are growing faster than anywhere else in the world–and protected areas suffer from ongoing human encroachment. In addition, bushmeat is becoming seen as a “luxury” good in urban centers, pushing some in rural communities to see illegal hunting as a new livelihood where there are few.

Snared wild dog. Photo by: Egil Droge/Zambian Carnivore Program. Courtesy of Panthera.
Snared wild dog. Photo by: Frederike Otten. Courtesy of Panthera.

The bushmeat boom, which has not been largely studied across eastern and southern Africa, has put the continents big predators on notice, according to the report.

“Most cheetahs and African wild dogs occur outside protected areas, coexisting with people and their livestock, and are very vulnerable to snaring and the loss of their wild prey,” says Netty Purchase with both ZSL and WCS.

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are currently listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, while African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) are considered Endangered. Africa’s most well-known top predator, the lion (Panthera leo), is listed as Vulnerable with data showing it has plunged by 30 percent since 1990. Leopards (Panthera pardus) are probably doing the best of the four, and are listed as Near Threatened. All of these predators face other threats beyond illegal hunting—including habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and in some cases trophy hunting—but an overall decline in prey and injuries or death caused by snare cannot be overstated. For example, in Mozambique’s Niassa Reserve over half of lion mortalities are caused by snares.

The report notes that some areas have undergone “empty savanna syndrome,” similar to the more well-known “empty forest syndrome.” The ecosystem is there, but large wild mammals are simply gone due to unregulated over-hunting. In some countries, hunters have begun turning to smaller animals, as larger-bodied mammals have vanished.

Recommendations from the report include addressing human population growth through education and family planning; better land-use planning; providing alternative livelihoods and other protein sources in rural areas; encouraging tourism and sustainable-use of wildlife; as well as passing and enforcing better laws.

“Frank discussion of the issue of high levels of human population growth within and near to protected areas is required,” the freely-available report reads, “because if current trends continue, other interventions to address illegal hunting the bushmeat trade are much less likely to succeed.”

Snared cheetah recovered by a park ranger in Zambia. Photo by: Zambia Carnivore Programme.
Snared cheetah recovered by a park ranger in Zambia. Photo by: Zambia Carnivore Programme.

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