Site icon Conservation news

Scientists: lions need funding not fences

Fences are not the answer to the decline in Africa’s lions, according to a new paper in Ecology Letters. The new research directly counters an earlier controversial study that argued keeping lions fenced-in would be cheaper and more effective in saving the big cats. African lion (Panthera leo) populations across the continent have fallen dramatically: it’s estimated that the current population is around 15,000-35,000 lions, down from 100,000 just 50 years ago. The animal kings are suffering from booming human populations, habitat loss and fragmentation, prey decline, trophy hunting, and human-lion conflict.

“Fenced populations certainly play a role in lion conservation, but they are typically small in comparison to unfenced reserves, and they are managed intensively, with much larger operating budgets than unfenced reserves,” says lead author Scott Creel of Montana State University.

Creel’s study argues that the previous research looked only at lion densities ignoring the importance of total populations in protected areas. Most fenced lion areas contain high densities of lions—sometimes well-above carrying capacity—but small populations overall, while larger unfenced areas are home to the bulk of the world’s lions even if at lower densities.

“Clearly, a low-density population of 2000 individuals has more conservation value than a high-density population of 20. Consideration of this issue of scale alone weakens the argument for fencing,” the scientists write. They note that many of the fenced-in populations were intensively controlled with lions being moved in and out.

While Creel and co-authors admit that fenced reserves prevent lion-human conflict, a major problem in many parts of Africa, they add that fences come with massive environmental costs, including increased habitat fragmentation, severing migration routes, and genetic isolation. In addition, standing fences can often be used to make snares, one of the largest threats to lions and other large African mammals.

“Fences can prevent access to water and grazing for migratory and nomadic wildlife, while wide ranging carnivore species such as cheetah and wild dogs depend on large tracts of habitat both inside and outside protected area systems for their survival,” adds co-author Sarah Durant, with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Zoological Society of London. “As ecosystems become ever more fragmented we need to increasingly emphasize connectivity and landscape level management, not fragment things further.”

Male lion in Namibia. Photo by: Kevin Pluck.
Male lion in Namibia. Photo by: Kevin Pluck/Creative Commons 3.0.

In the end the dilemma may come down to what kind of Africa does the world want? A continent with still-sprawling wild lands for big mammals like lions, or fenced-in reserves that look more like walled parks than ecosystems. Either way, both sides agree that what is really needed is more funding on-the-ground.

“Recent studies show that larger budgets for patrolling and better-regulated hunting will have strong benefits for lions,” says Creel, who notes that funds spent on wildlife rangers would be of better use than fences.

The reserves holding Africa’s largest remaining lion populations are woefully under-funded,” adds another co-author Matt Becker with the Zambian Carnivore Programme. “However, that funding shouldn’t need to come with a fence around it.”

Bad news for lions has been piling up recently: a study last year found that lion habitat had dropped by 75 percent since 1960 and some populations have vanished altogether. The West African lion (Panthera leo senegalensis)—which recent research has shown is more closely related to Asiatic lions than their African cousins—is down to less than 2,000 individuals. But still many field conservationists see fences as a false solution.

“Most scientists and managers are not ready to throw in the towel on human-wildlife coexistence outside of reserves and on improving law enforcement and management within them. This work has just been drastically under-funded,” says co-author Amy Dickman with Oxford University. Dickman heads the Ruaha Carnivore project in Tanzania; the little-known Ruaha landscape is home to an estimated 10 percent of the world’s lions.

CITATIONS: Creel, S., Becker, M.S., Durant, S.M., M’Soka, J., Matandiko, W., Dickman, A.J., Christianson, D., Dröge, E., Mweetwa, T., Pettorelli, N., Rosenblatt, E., Schuette, P., Woodroffe, R., Bashir, S., Beudels-Jamar, R.C., Blake, S., Borner, M., Breitenmoser, C., Cozzi, G., Davenport, T.R.B., Deutsch, J., Dollar, L., Dolrenry, S., Douglas-Hamilton, I., Foley, C., Hazzah, L., Henschel, P., Hilborn, R., Hopcraft, G., Ikanda, D., Jacobson, A., Joubert, B., Joubert, D., Kelly, M.S., Lichtenfeld, L., Mace, G.M., Milanzi, J., Mitchell, N., Msuha, M., Nyahongo, J., Pimm, S., Purchase, G., Schenck, C., Sillero-Zubiri, C., Sinclair, Songorwa, A., A.R.E., Stanley-Price, M., Tehou, J., A., Trout, C., Wall, J., Wittemeyer, G., Zimmermann, A. Conserving large populations of lions – the argument for fences has holes. Ecology Letters. 2013. doi: 10.1111/ele.12145

Packer, C. et al. 2013. Conserving large carnivores: Dollars and fence. Ecology Letters DOI: 10.1111/ele.12091

Related articles

The end of wild Africa?: lions may need fences to survive

(03/06/2013) In order for dwindling lion populations to survive in Africa, large-scale fencing projects may be required according to new research in Ecology Letters. Recent estimates have put lion populations down to 15,000-35,000, a massive drop from a population that was thought to be around 100,000 in 1960. The worsening plight of lions have pushed the researchers to suggest what is likely to be a controversial proposal: fence the top predators in.

Lions for sale: big game hunting combines with lion bone trade to threaten endangered cats

(04/18/2013) Koos Hermanus would rather not give names to the lions he breeds. So here, behind a 2.4-meter high electric fence, is 1R, a three-and-a-half-year-old male, who consumes 5kg of meat a day and weighs almost 200kg. It will only leave its enclosure once it has been “booked”‘ by a hunter, most of whom are from the United States. At that point the big cat will be set loose in the wild for the first time in its life, 96 hours before the hunt begins. It usually takes about four days to track down the prey, with the trophy hunter following its trail on foot, accompanied by big-game professionals including Hermanus. He currently has 14 lions at his property near Groot Marico, about two and a half hours by road west of Johannesburg.

Male lions require dense vegetation for successful ambush hunting

(03/20/2013) For a long time male lions were derided as the lazy ones in the pride, depending on females for the bulk of hunting and not pulling their weight. Much of this was based on field observations—female lions hunt cooperatively, often in open savannah, and therefore are easier to track at night. But new research in Animal Behaviour is showing that males are adroit hunters in their own right, except prickly males hunt alone and use dense vegetation as cover; instead of social hunting in open savannah, they depend on ambushing unsuspecting prey.

Forgotten lions: shedding light on the fate of lions in unprotected areas

(03/18/2013) African lions (Panthera leo) living outside of protected areas like national parks or reserves also happen to be studied much less than those residing within protected areas, to the detriment of lion conservation initiatives. In response to this trend, a group of researchers surveyed an understudied, unprotected region in northwestern Mozambique called the Tete Province, whose geography and proximity to two national parks suggests a presence of lions.

Geneticists discover distinct lion group in squalid conditions

(02/04/2013) They languished behind bars in squalid conditions, their very survival in jeopardy. Outside, an international team of advocates strove to bring worldwide attention to their plight. With modern genetics, the experts sought to prove what they had long believed: that these individuals were special. Like other cases of individuals waiting for rescue from a life of deprivation behind bars, the fate of those held captive might be dramatically altered with the application of genetic science to answer questions of debated identity. Now recent DNA analysis has made it official: this group is special and because of their scientifically confirmed distinctiveness they will soon enjoy greater freedom.

Exit mobile version