Lions in South Africa Pressured by TB Outbreak, Hunters

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
September 30, 2005
See pictures of lions in South Africa >>

Attacks by African lions on people and livestock have been in the news
lately, but on the whole humans present a much greater threat to
Africa's lions than the lions do to humans.

South Africa's free-ranging lion population, an estimated 2,700 animals living mostly in the ecosystem surrounding Kruger National Park in the northeast corner of the country, is among those at risk.

One possible threat is bovine tuberculosis, a disease probably introduced to South Africa through domestic cattle brought in by European settlers at the end of the 18th century.

The disease also afflicts animals in the Serengeti grasslands and woodlands in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. But according to Craig Packer, professor of zoology at the University of Minnesota, TB isn't as important an issue there.

"While it seems that TB is a worse problem in Kruger than elsewhere, it is still not clear that the disease is as devastating as people originally claimed," he said. "While we still have TB in Tanzania, it isn't a problem that we worry much about."

Dewald Keet, the chief veterinarian at Kruger National Park, does worry. He said that bovine tuberculosis is an ever-increasing threat to Kruger lions. But because TB is increasing at a slow rate, people may have the mistaken impression that it has stabilized.

"Nothing is being done to control the disease except research," he said. According to Keet, the prevalence of the disease in lions in the southern half of the park varies between 48 percent and 78 percent.

He explained that lions first contracted the disease when eating infected buffalo carcasses, and the southern region of the park is where TB prevalence is highest in African buffalo. Lions in Kruger are also infecting each other through biting and aerosol transmission, Keet said.

About 25 lions die of TB every year in Kruger, but even more important is the effect of the disease on lion social behavior. Males are weakened by the chronic disease, and this, Keet said, leads to "faster territorial male turnover and consequent infanticide, eviction of entire prides, and a decrease in average longevity."

"Canned" Hunting

Hunting lions is still legal in South Africa. According to Karyl Whitman, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, "nearly all of the hunting is conducted on private ranches, and thus on small 'manicured' populations as opposed to 'wild' viable populations."

This kind of "canned" hunting is controversial, and, in Whitman's view, "distasteful." She adds that it may have at least one redeeming feature in that it takes the pressure off wild populations in other areas. "But I know of no studies that have that documented," she warned.

Whitman said that hunters are divided on the subject of the ethics of canned hunting. "One might argue that 'hunters' are opposed to it," she said, "but 'shooters' are not."

Luring Free-Ranging Lions

Keet sees another danger: hunters who lure lions with bait or sound, especially large, free-ranging males from protected areas. Hunters are only interested in big, preferably black-maned lions, Keet said, and killing them can be disastrous. "It causes a chain reaction where new males then move in and kill the offspring of the hunted males."

Trophy hunters claim about 150 South African lions each year, but the South African government views this trade as sustainable. An April 2004 proposal by the Kenya Wildlife Service for the management of Africa's lion population asserted that current levels of hunting are unsustainable.

In response, Pieter Botha of South Africa's Environmental Affairs and Tourism Department, wrote that this might apply to some countries, but not to South Africa.

South Africa exports more lions and lion body parts than any country except Tanzania. South Africa contributes about 30 percent of lions hunted in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Future of South African Lions

Although there are some small populations of lions outside of the Kruger ecosystem, they are not self-sustaining, and, according to Keet, they have to be managed with occasional additions and removals.

Keet worries, though, about the continuing health of the free-ranging population. "Bovine tuberculosis is not a disease that will disappear from the Kruger ecosystem unless radically combated," he said. "And by now it is probably too late."

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