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Suspected poisoning takes down 11 lions in Uganda park

  • Eight cubs and three female lions have been found dead, apparently from eating poisoned meat in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
  • Lions, along with other predators, have been in decline across Uganda since the 1970s.
  • Recent studies indicate that the country’s growing human population has driven lions out of their former habitats and that the big cats are killed to defend the livestock of local communities.

Eleven lions were allegedly poisoned to death in a Ugandan national park in early April.

Authorities discovered the bodies of three lionesses and eight cubs, members of the same pride, on April 11 in Queen Elizabeth National Park around Hamukungu, a fishing village in southwestern Uganda. They were believed to have eaten meat laced with poison.

Uganda’s lion population is around 500. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Ephraim Kamuntu, Uganda’s minister of tourism, wildlife and antiquities, pointed out the importance of lions in drawing tourists.

“We condemn in the strongest terms possible such an act of deliberately killing animals which are now a top foreign exchange earner to the country,” he said in a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.

Kamuntu said “nature tourism” was worth $1.4 billion to Uganda’s economy. That’s more than 5 percent of its annual gross domestic product, according to the United Nations. But in a country where each person’s share of that total works out to less than $650, the loss of a herder’s livestock to big cats can be devastating, leading communities to seek retribution and contributing to a decline in the lion population across Uganda. Fewer than 500 lions remain.

According to Kamuntu, the wildlife authority distributed a share of the profits from park entry fees totaling more than 929 million Ugandan shillings (about $252,000) in 2017 to districts around Queen Elizabeth National Park for schools, health clinics and small business projects.

Scientists believe that all of Uganda’s lions live in protected areas. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

But a comment on the Facebook post questioned the difference that that type of investment makes for communities.

“If those locals were [truly] benefiting from the revenue collections, they wouldn’t kill those animals,” Boaz Tom Wamara wrote. He said that reports to authorities of crop destruction or lost livestock often don’t lead to any compensation. “That frustrates the local community [and] they resort to killing those animals to protect the little that belongs [and] benefits them.”

Authorities are investigating the incident in Hamukungu, Kamuntu said.

“We have already reported this matter to the police and we are working closely with other relevant authorities and stakeholders to pursue this matter until the perpetrators of this heinous act are brought to book and face the full extent of the law,” he said.

A recent report by the conservation NGO TRAFFIC found that the “indiscriminate killing in defense of people and cattle” was one of the leading causes of declining lion numbers since the 1970s. On the continent, there are 43 percent fewer African lions (Panthera leo) than there were 20 years ago, and the big cat is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

At the same time, Uganda’s human population is now nearly 43 million, according to the U.N. That increase has continued to put lions, as well as other predators, on a collision course with humans living in the same area.

Lions are killed by people when they’re suspected of having killed livestock — one of the major threats they face in the country. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

“Because of human population growth and habitat conversion for subsistence agriculture, most large carnivores have been confined inside protected areas and wiped out from the remaining unprotected territories,” the TRAFFIC report says.

The death of the lions in Hamukungu, it appears, is just the latest instance of this trend.

“It is a sad day for us as an institution,” Bashir Hangi, communications manager for the wildlife authority, said in a video posted by NTVUganda. “To us, to lose 11 at once is such a big loss, not us as [the] Uganda Wildlife Authority, but as a country.”

Banner image of an African lion in Tanzania by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

John Cannon is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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