for National Geographic News
A lion with a majestic mane has long been a trophy coveted by big game hunters in Africa. Research suggests that if hunting is going to take place, hunters should target only the big cats with the darkest nosesperhaps one way to ensure that only the oldest animals are removed from lion populations.
In general, a lion's nose starts out pink and darkens as it gets older. By age five the noses of male lions in Tanzania's Serengeti and Ngorongoro wildlife reserves are 50 percent black, according to studies.
By restricting hunting to lions whose noses are at least half black, hunters would be singling out animals that, for the most part, have already made their genetic contribution to the population, said Craig Packer. Packer, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota in Saint Paul, led the study, which appears in this week's issue of the journal Nature.
Although the rules for sport or trophy hunting vary from country to country in Africa, hunters everywhere pay thousands of dollars to shoot big game like lions. Packer and his colleagues believe a portion of the profits could finance both conservation of the animals and their habitat.
In many regions of Africa, lion-human conflicts are on the rise. As wildlands disappear, lions stray onto farms and ranches in search of prey. Funds from trophy-hunting safaris could, in theory, compensate landowners for stock losses caused by these animals.
"If hunters take the older males, these are also the animals with the largest manes and therefore the highest-quality trophies. That's good for business and good for conservation," Packer said.
"I would be concerned that any off-take would be detrimental," said Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundationa conservation organization based in West Sussex, U.K. "Studies from Botswana showed that even a low level of hunting had negative effects on the population."
There are only an estimated 17,000 to 27,000 lions in Africa, according to a 2002 report issued by the African Lion Working Group of the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN). According to Travers, only about four countries in Africa have a viable lion populationSouth Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, and certain areas of Kenya.
"According to a meeting of the IUCN in 2001, there is not a single viable lion population in any country in West or central Africa. That should serve as a wake up call to conservationists," Travers said.
The IUCN defines a viable lion population as one with about 500 to 1,000 individualsincluding 100 breeding pairs. Most populations in central and West Africa number between 50 and 100 animals.
To make projections about sustainable levels of hunting, Packer's team created a virtual lion populationbased on 40 years of real biological data gathered from lions in northern Tanzania. They also used computer simulations to demonstrate the effect of hunting lions of various ages.
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