Saturday, 8 August 2015

On Cecil the Lion: The Pros and Cons of Trophy Hunting

I've put off writing this article for a while now, because I could see that the shooting of Cecil has caused so much uproar (no pun intended), and the dust still definitely hasn't settled on this subject. I'm going to try and lay out what effects trophy hunting can have on a species, and some arguments for and against it before stating my own opinion.
But first I'm going to say this; feel free to completely ignore everything I've written and to disagree with my concluding opinion. There are many experts who would both agree and disagree with my stance on trophy hunting, and at the end of the day I'm just another member of the public with a slight obsession with animals shouting my opinion at the internet, however I like to think my years of reading about lions gives me a slight edge on this subject, so here goes.

Cecil - Having a Name Elevated His Conservation Status?
Let's be honest, how many of us had heard of Cecil before all this happened? Very few, so it was very interesting to see literally thousands of people so quick to avenge him and jump on a bandwagon.
Cecil was a unique individual in his appearance (which will be explained later), but it meant that he was easy for tourists to spot and follow. He was also quite accustomed to people, so safari goers could get amazing close up views of this magnificent specimen.
Some of my fellow zoologist friends are actually annoyed that because he was named he's become a celebrity; however that's how celebrity status works with wildlife (think Shrek the sheep, Koko the gorilla, and Lonesome George to name a few). Named individuals become flagships for their species, and help promote conservation, because people feel more connected to a single animal with a story to follow rather than someone spouting population numbers about an entire species. It's the entire reason charities have adoption campaigns. And because of this, the death of Cecil has become big news. I'm going to argue that everyone joining this particular fight has resulted in some great things for lions as a whole, so I'm glad it happened. Conservation is unfortunately a numbers game with a utilitarian view; the sacrifice of the few to aid the many, and that's definitely what's happening for African lions because of Cecil.

Let's face it, he was a pretty impressive lion with a mane like that.

Trophy Hunting - The Knock-On Effects
As some articles have already highlighted there are many consequences of trophy hunting, so I'm going to try and sum these up for you.

Infanticide - This is something that is directly applicable to the Cecil incident. Due to the ecology of lions, the absence of a resident male vastly increases the chance that his cubs will not survive. This is due to a lack of defense; males without a pride will come into an area and kill the cubs, forcing the females back into heat so they can be mated again. 
Evolutionarily speaking it's a great way of removing the genes of others and replacing them with your own. To prevent this from happening too often, back in 2007 Dr. Craig Packer (the head of the Serengeti Lion Project and the world's leading lionologist) published a hunter's guide to age lions, suggesting that only males above the age of six and above should be shot. This way they will have had the chance to breed at least once, but the chances of them having dependent cubs (under 9 months old) at that age are reduced. However, these guidelines were not adopted by anyone, so there is still no limitation on which individual male can be taken, exposing many prides to infanticide.
But maybe other lions won't find a pride with fewer or no males? Lions do after all have huge territories. Unfortunately this happens more than you would think; surplus males are everywhere because they are ejected from the pride as they reach sexual maturity, whereas the females remain. Because of this, nomdic males skirt territories all the time, waiting for an opportunity to gain control of a pride of their own. Have a look at this video demonstrating how lions can count how many roars are in a chorus. So if a pride is doing it's nightly roar which is basically saying "This is our land and there's this many of us", it can quickly become obvious to outsiders if a few voices start to go missing, making the chances of takeover increase vastly. It's the reason you sometimes see really old males still in control of a pride, because as long as they have an ability to roar, that alone can help keep outsiders on the outside.
(For those interested in the case of Cecil: his coalition partner Jericho is present and helping defend his cubs, However, one has already been killed by a rival male.)

Infanticide leads to:
Lowered successful breeding - This is an obvious one; if females keep breeding but not successfully raising cubs, the populations can very quickly become depleted. This is sort of helped by the fact that lions, like all cats have the ability to be prolific breeders due to their sexual anatomy. However, it has been documented that lionesses can sometimes appear to hold a grudge against new males for long periods of time and refuse to mate with them, and sometimes females do not come back into season for a long time as well.

This leads to:
Smaller populations - Again, exactly what it says on the tin. Lions are already at risk from many factors; legal and illegal hunting, illegal trade, poaching, diseases, retaliation hunting and individual persecution, lion farming and canned hunting. Their patchy metapopulations are under a lot of stress.

You can find more maps and figures from ALERT: African Lion and Environment Research Trust.
Map Citation: Riggio J, Jacobson A, Dollar L, Bauer H, Becker M, Dickman A, Funston P, Groom R, Henschel P, de Iongh H, Lichtenfeld L, Pimm S (2012) The size of savannah Africa: a lion's (Panthera leo) view.  Biodiversity Conservation Dec 12 DOI 10.1007/s10531-012-0381-4.

Which leads to:
Inbreeding - The results of inbreeding are vast, from physical deformities to lowered immune response. A population of animals can very quickly become of lowered quality, and of course those genes keep getting passed on again and again. Some simple maths that I won't go into demonstrates that populations of any animal can go through the odd genetic bottleneck without too much loss of genetic variation, however if a species goes through this multiple times, or remains in a bottleneck, it can very quickly become a problem. Unfortunately lions are facing many inbreeding problems; their distribution is in pockets due to national parks in Africa, and because the parks are so far spread gene flow between these populations is very limited.

This leads to:
The extinction vortex - It's as dangerous as it sounds. Inbred animals in small populations become more inbred, and more vulnerable to catastrophes. Populations get smaller and smaller until there's no more animals left. This diagram explains it better than I do:

Other Knock-On Effects:
Reverse Evolution - This is somewhat mis-named, but it's the phenomenon where human selection on a species results in phenotypes disappearing from an animal (or an animal reverting to a more primitive form). Because big, black maned males (like Cecil) are coveted trophies, these are more often than not the ones that are shot. This has resulted in these individuals being quite a rare sight now in the wild. This is also seen in other animals like the size (or even complete absence) of elephant tusks.

You're more likely to see individuals like this in the wild nowadays (and no, he's not just a subadult).

Trophy Hunting for Conservation Purposes?
This is tricky; there are many pros and cons for trophy hunting to be used as a conservation tool.

Global and local effects of trophy hunting - Trophy hunting does allow for large numbers of tourists to bring income for shooting holidays, and are willing to pay for their trophies. Money is forked out for flights, accommodation, equipment hire, bait, trackers, drivers, hunting guides, the lion itself, trophy preparation and taxidermy, and trophy exportation and importation charges. Using trophy hunting for conservation is a good way of keeping it for countries that argue it is a big bringer of income and don't want to ban it all together.
Quotas are usually used; only 0.5 - 2% of a population can be used for hunting, and if implemented properly the money goes back into the general management of the national park.

Trophy hunting prevents poaching
If hunting is taken out of areas without offering any alternative (i.e. a full ban), those ares will be poached dry within two years. Losing a few animals to protect the many is the best stance to take.

Many areas of Africa will never be attractive to photo tourism, but they provide habitats for lions.
Setting these areas aside for trophy hunting could prevent many areas of Africa from being developed on, which in turns helps all wildlife in those areas.

Shooting lions is amazingly inexpensive
The cost for shooting a bighorn sheep in America is about $100,000, whereas a licence can be obtained to shoot a lion for less than $10,000. With these current prices, trophy hunting can barely bring any revenue into conservation.

"I'm worth more than a lion?!"

If trophy hunting is to be used as a conservation tool to preserve lions, it needs to generate vastly more income than it currently does.
In Tanzania, safari tourism generates four times more revenue than shooting holidays, and if areas set aside for trophy hunting do not generate enough income, there is a good chance they will be developed into farmland or housing.

It may be too late to implement restriction on trophy hunting anyway
As mentioned earlier, lion populations sizes are small and patchy. Males find it very hard to move between populations, and in Tanzania hunters have access to seven times the amount of land as National Parks.

Some Arguments That Have Been Presented to Me
"We should not care about this, people are dying every day!"
I honestly don't know how to tackle this when it's thrown at me. Yes, it is odd that one animal has been in the news so much, but it has started a snowball of fantastic movement resulting in bigger conservation efforts, more money for charities and also more education for those who were unaware of the effects of trophy hunting. And I honestly can't believe that anyone has the energy to mourn every single person or animal that dies every day. Bad things happen every day, and whether they become headlines or not is the medias choice. Let's face it, the headlines about the new royal baby lasted about a week after her birth, yet for some reason people are taking great offence to Cecil and lion conservation remaining news.

"But there are 32,000 lions in Africa, some animal populations never get that high!"
In my opinion, this doesn't justify hunting them. 32,000 individuals (which is an old and very generous estimate now) is not viable; the best estimates say that lions could be extinct by 2050, so we're going to be alive when the last lion dies and we only get to see these creatures in zoos. That's going to be even sooner if we continue to let them be hunted.
Also, just because some animals don't have populations that high doesn't mean they deserve any more or less conservation effort. There's an estimate of 211,000 red squirrels in the UK alone (that's not including their European range), compared to the 32,000 lions in all of Africa. That doesn't mean I'm going to start justifying red squirrel hunting in the UK, because I highly doubt lion populations will ever get that high.

"People only care because he's a cute, fluffy lion. Other animal taxa that aren't cute also need conservation!"
I 100% agree with this, but welcome to conservation! Despite what you may think, conservation is about people, not animals. The cuter an animal is, the more likely it is to get funding; that's a hard cold fact right there. How many of the general public know about chytridiomycosis in amphibians for example? Startlingly few. But the cute factor is why so many charities that work with many animals generally use mammals as their logo or flagship species (WWF, The Born Free Foundation etc.). But again, that doesn't mean that lions are less deserving of conservation efforts.

Bans on Trophies and Hunting?
Some areas banned trophy hunting in the wake of Cecil's death, and other countries like the US are seriously considering a ban on trophy importation. Only today Qatar Airways announced they will stop transporting all hunting trophies. However I feel that a lot of these are very short-lived, or may not even come to pass. Zimbabwe has already lifted the ban on lions, leopards and elephants only 6 days after implementing it. We've still got a long way to go before any proper control is put in place.

My personal view is that the death of Cecil has sparked some fantastic debate and conservation effort to protecting lions, which as a whole is good. I believe that yes, trophy hunting should be looked at now, and the public momentum behind so many petitions is going to at least cause a lot of discussion. I'm unsure myself if it should be banned outright; there are many issues lions face which is massively affecting their populations and breeding success, and an overall ban of hunting could sentence them to extinction as poaching would have the potential to increase dramatically. Perhaps the money that is being given to charities in the name of Cecil should be put into anti-poaching for example. But my opinion is that trophy hunting should definitely be more regulated to help lions recover, as it is one of the factors affecting them that can truly be controlled.

I think that more focus should be put on things like lion farms (that I haven't even touched in this article), and more education on why playing with cubs is fueling the canned hunting industry. Lions have become a replacement target species for tigers in Chinese medicine, which in means a massive increase in poaching. More research could be done into controlling or preventing the spread of population-damaging diseases such as canine distemper and feline immuno-deficiency virus (FIV). More programmes such as the Lion Guardians of the Masai Mara could be implemented throughout Africa to vastly reduce the amount of retaliation hunting. I can't help but feel that the public anger on trophy hunting is slightly misplaced, and would be better focused on these, more important (and overall more damaging) issues before the lion becomes extinct.

Lion populations are now so low that extreme measures to protect them - such as fencing in larger populations - has been suggested by experts. The truth is lions are going to go extinct in our lifetime, and now it's only a matter of time before we lose this magnificent creature, but be careful with jumping on bandwagons. Educate yourselves, and make your own informed decision before you sign that online petition or share that angry post. Trophy hunting does have it's value, but it's only one of many factors affecting lions that are incredibly more detrimental and should be the main focus of conservation for this particular species.

Now you've made it to the end of my article, here's some fluffy cubs as a reward.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Birds On Smaller Islands Have a Higher Rate Of Melanism Which Helps Survival Rates

It has been well documented that animals on islands end up developing interesting traits; Darwin's famous finches with huge variations in beak size is possibly the most obvious example. Sometimes large animals like elephants and mammoths can shrink in size, whereas smaller creatures like rodents become huge. One of these characteristics that can change is colouration, particularly becoming all-black (known as melanism). New data published on one species of bird found on the Solomon Islands has found that the size of the island can predict the frequency that melanism occurs.

Scientists from the University of Miami used the chestnut-bellied flycatcher to investigate the connection between melanistic individuals and island size. The species is endemic to the islands - it is not found anywhere else in the world - so it is a good indicator of island effects on a species. 13 islands of differing sizes were visited to look for the birds. The chestnut-bellied flycatcher usually has a brown underside (as the name indicates), but there are also several melanistic individuals that can be found within the populations.

Albert Uy, who has been working on the flycatchers for nearly a decade now and co-authored the paper published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, stated that the chestnut-bellied flycatcher was a well-suited species for study in regards to plumage diversity and species origins, particularly as different populations can be found at varying stages of speciation.

Results of the study found that there was a strong correlation between island size and black birds; the smaller the island, the more melanistic individuals found. Sometimes the black varieties of birds contributed to nearly a third of birds of that species found on the smaller islands. The authors put forward the explanation that because this pattern of melanistic animals is reflected throughout other taxa (animals other than birds), there must be some sort of advantage to have a darker colouration on the smaller islands, instead of it merely being coincidence.

Previous studies have suggested that melanism and aggression have a genetic link, especially in mammals and fish. For example; lions with blacker manes have higher testosterone (meaning they are more aggressive to outsiders), resulting in fending off more rivals and being able to reproduce with more females, passing on more genes. This prompted the authors to conclude that smaller islands - which in turn have smaller breeding territories - could result in more aggressive individuals as they are more likely to be successful in competitions for mates, resulting in more melanistic individuals in the population.

Studies of island populations of species have always been important in understanding the basic principals of evolution and ecology, such as the origins of species and the adaptations they undergo. Results like this add to the significance of islands as natural experiments for learning about biodiversity and speciation.

The original paper can be found here.

Welcome to New Zoologist!

So here goes, the first post!

I'm Rebecca (affectionately dubbed "The Lioness" by a few friends for being slightly over-obsessed with a single species), I'm a recently graduated zoologist from the University of Reading. In case you hadn't guessed, I have a passion for animals and wildlife, so I decided to start a blog about it all!

One of the things I loved at university was doing the coursework; gaining access to published papers to re-write them in a more digestible format. Science communication is a career that I may venture into at some point, so I'm hoping to be able to deliver you with animal news in a more readable format than that of a journal. I'll take the findings of a paper and hopefully deliver it to you in a concise and interesting way that won't be as formal or bogged down with scientific jargon as the original text. The same sort of thing that BBC Wildlife and  New Scientist magazines do (no inspiration for my blog's name there of course).

I hope that this blog blossoms into something that readers come to look forward to reading, and that my writing skills develop in the process. So whether you're a lover of mammals or birds, reptiles or amphibians (or even the odd invertebrate) I hope that this is something to your liking!

- The Lioness