Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and US President Barack Obama shake hands before a meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Sunday. Photo :PTI Photo New Delhi, January 25, 2015 Image Credit: PTI

The killing of Zimbabwe’s celebrated Cecil the Lion by a Minnesota dentist, on July 1, 2015, unleashed a storm of moral fulmination against trophy hunting. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued an official statement calling for the hunter, Dr Walter Palmer, to be hanged, and an odd bedfellow, Newt Gingrich, tweeted that Palmer and the entire team involved in the killing of Cecil should go to jail. The television personality Sharon Osbourne thought merely losing “his home, his practice and his money” would do, adding, “He has already lost his soul.”

More than one million people signed a petition demanding “justice for Cecil”, and three major United States airlines announced that they would no longer transport hunting trophies. A few months later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed lions from West and Central Africa and also India as endangered, shutting down the major markets for trophies from that region. Australia, France and the Netherlands banned lion trophy imports outright.

Unfortunately, the furore did almost nothing to slow the catastrophic decline in lion populations, down 43 per cent over the past two decades. That’s because trophy hunting was never really the main problem. Lions are disappearing in Africa for a reason far more complicated and less susceptible to either moral grandstanding or easy solutions: Impoverished Africans are eating the lions’ prey and killing the lions themselves — at a rate estimated at five to 10 times the take from trophy hunting.

In West and Central Africa in particular, the killing now takes place almost entirely within national parks and other ostensibly protected areas. Poachers and bushmeat hunters have already stripped wildlife from the remaining unprotected habitat, leaving empty forests. Now many protected areas have also lost the buffalo, antelope and other large animals that lions would normally feed on, according to Philipp Henschel, a lion specialist with the cat conservation group Panthera. In many habitats, only warthogs and baboons survive, because of Muslim rules against eating them. Herders also capture and kill lions, using leghold traps made from old car springs. They do this not just to protect livestock but also to sell lion bones to the Asian traditional medicine trade.

As a result, lions are now effectively extinct across much of West and Central Africa; two populations, totalling about 400, remain. Continent-wide, only about 20,000 lions survive, according to a new report, ‘Beyond Cecil: Africa’s Lions in Crisis’, just issued by Panthera and another conservation group, WildAid. That’s down from 200,000 in the mid-20th century, and populations are likely to drop by half, except in southern Africa, over the next two decades.

Africa without lions? It is unthinkable. But angry tweets are not really much of an answer. So where do we go with our outrage?

The first step in making sure that doesn’t happen may seem obvious to us but less so to Africans struggling to feed their families: Set aside and truly protect part of each country as wildlife habitat. This is not just common sense, it’s also a survival strategy for both lions and humans, especially as Africa’s population quadruples in this century to four billion people.

Forests and other natural habitats produce oxygen, help prevent both drought and flooding, refill aquifers and serve as a living gene bank for agricultural improvement, among many other benefits. They can become the basis for jobs in tourism economies and provide essential resources, including a sustainable harvest of firewood, medicine and even meat for nearby communities — but only if somebody is protecting the habitat from the heedless human urge to consume everything right now.

And that’s not happening. For example, Zambia’s Kafue National Park, an area the size of Massachusetts, loses much of its wildlife to snaring — and generates just $2.3 million (Dh8.45 million) a year from tourism. With adequate anti-poaching patrols and upgraded facilities, a recent analysis by conservation and development consultant Rowan Martin suggests, the park could be making $39 million a year instead, along with jobs and benefits for its neighbours — and support four times as many lions.

Unfortunately, only a few countries in Africa have the tax base or the political will to maintain and patrol protected areas effectively. According to a report published in January by a team of Panthera scientists, many allocate just $100 per square kilometre, a fraction of the $500 to $2,000 required. Properly managed trophy hunting can help in some areas but generates only $138 to $1,100 per square kilometre — and much less after the hunting guide takes a share. Tourism may close the gap, but it tends to concentrate on a few spectacular sites like the Serengeti and Kruger National Park.

The ‘Beyond Cecil’ report argues that, moving past the disproportionate focus on trophy hunting after Cecil’s death, the single most important step in securing the future of the lion in Africa ‘is mobilising massive support’ for Africa’s parks and protected areas. That is, we should be lobbying the United Nations, the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development, the European Union, the International Development Bank and other international bodies to take on the park management shortfall, estimated at $700 million to $3 billion a year.

This money needs to go to anti-poaching patrols in protected areas but with the transparency and policing to ensure it does not dwindle like past funding efforts under the guidance of western consultants and corrupt African governments.

Some of that money should also go to develop alternatives to bushmeat, to reduce conflict with wildlife (for instance, by building better nighttime corrals) and to compensate livestock herders for the burden of living with lions and other dangerous animals. In one area, outside a national park in Niger, where per capita income is less than $500, the loss of livestock to lions costs $138 per person every year — hardly a recipe for tolerance. People living around protected areas need to see practical benefits to living with wildlife.

This ought to be a campaign that unites animal rights activists and trophy hunters alike. Both have a material and emotional interest when, as the ‘Beyond Cecil’ report notes, more than 1,400 prey animals have suffered slow, painful deaths in snares and been left to rot in just one Zimbabwe conservancy. Their scent attracts lions and other predators, which also end up snared, to be “choked, succumb to injuries, or die of thirst”.

In truth, it is a campaign that ought to unite all of us who want some vestige of wild Africa — one with lions, elephants, rhinos — to survive beyond our meagre lifetimes. Never mind Walter Palmer’s soul. If we do nothing but point fingers, it is our own souls we should be worrying about.

— New York Times News Service

Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth.