Kenya Wants Most-Protected Status for Lions

The Kenya Wildlife Service is pushing a plan to give the African lion maximum protection under a U.N. body that governs trade in endangered or threatened plants and animals.

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Even the King of Beasts needs a hand staying alive in his own domain.

And Kenya, a country famed for its wildlife sanctuaries and conservation efforts, is one of the African lion's biggest champions.

The Kenya Wildlife Service is pushing a plan to give the African lion maximum protection under a U.N. body that governs trade in endangered or threatened plants and animals.

The government will ask a gathering next month of signatories of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to give the lion its most protected status, a proposal that will face opposition from several other African nations.

"The lion population has declined by over 50 percent in the past decade, and nobody has actually brought this to international attention," said Patrick Omondi, the Kenya Wildlife Service's CITES coordinator.

Conservative estimates place the African lion population at 23,000, Kenya wrote in its proposal to be discussed at the CITES meeting in Bangkok from Oct 2 to 14.

Habitat destruction, the loss of prey and what Kenya calls unsustainable trophy hunting are pushing one of the world's most feared predators closer to extinction.

An article published in the respected conservation journal Oryx earlier this year sounded the alarm.

"The number of free-ranging African lions...has never been comprehensively assessed," it said.

"We present an inventory of available information, covering most protected areas...This gives a conservative estimate of 16,500-30,000 free-ranging lions in Africa," it said.

Lions, or Panthera leo, to give them their scientific name, once prowled over a swathe of territory that included most of Africa, much of west Asia and even southeastern Europe.

The big cat's current range in Africa is less than a third of what it was historically and today the only Asian lion population, about 300, is found in India's Gir Forest.

Time To Act

Kenya wants the lion placed in Appendix 1, which in the dry technical language of the convention means animals and plants in this category are threatened with extinction and their trade is banned, with very few exceptions.

The Asian lions are already listed in Appendix 1.

African lions are presently listed in the less stringent Appendix 2, and adding to the top category will allow for better management and monitoring of the population, Kenya and its supporters say.

"We want to be able to monitor the trend now," said Winnie Kiiru, the regional representative for the Born Free Foundation, which is involved with the CITES proposal. "We don't want to wait until we have 300 lions left and then wonder where they went."

Since the convention's ambit is limited to wildlife exported for primarily commercial purposes, Kenya is banking that members will consider the export of lions shot on trophy hunts as trade.

It is an important distinction to make, conservationists say, as hunting has an exaggerated effect on lion populations.

"Sport hunting focuses on the prime members of the pride. When they go hunting, they don't look for the lame lions," Kiiru said, adding that such targeting can weaken the genetic pool and induce stress that inhibits breeding.

Opposition Expected

But Kenya's efforts at the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, are expected to face opposition, particularly from southern African nations where trophy hunting is permitted -- South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Esmond Martin, a Kenya-based conservationist involved with rhinoceros and elephant protection, said he expects that Kenya's lion proposal will fail because trophy hunting cannot really be considered trade.

"The wealthy people that hunt them don't need the money. They want to put it on the wall and show it off to their friends," Martin said.

It is a different case altogether from the old African conservation fight over ivory, where the trophy-hunting element existed alongside the export of elephant products such as skins and tusks, he said.

South Africa, in its response to Kenya, said that trophy hunters are not exporting their kills for primarily commercial purposes, so most countries would issue an import license under an Appendix 1 listing.

Along with South Africa, Namibia also opposes Kenya's proposal on the grounds that stronger national rules to prohibit trophy-hunting at unsustainable levels make more sense, and that the primary threat to lions is their interaction with humans.

Lions often cause livestock losses outside of protected areas, pushing the cost onto the neighboring communities, Namibia's Ministry of Tourism and Environment wrote in its response to Kenya's proposal.

"These communities can only be expected to tolerate and conserve lions when the benefits they derive from lions outweighs the costs," Namibia wrote.

Its solution is to open up problem lions to trophy hunting, and charge fees that are given back to lion conservancies.

"The trophy-hunting of lions outside of protected areas, and along the border of protected areas, is thus critical to maintaining a viable balance between the cost and benefit of preserving the species," Namibia wrote.

Kenya, for its part, is willing to risk the fight to bring attention to the problem.

"Sometimes it's Kenya against everybody, and it's quite lonely," Kiiru said. (Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg)

Source: Reuters