Hunting For Data

| November 26, 2012

A young lioness with her mother in Kruger National Park. Photo by Professor Rob Alexander.

By Amanda Wisz Keener ’08 | Photos by Rob Alexander

It’s not uncommon for the work of Sweet Briar researchers to impact audiences far from home. Rob Alexander, professor of economics and environmental studies, hopes folks in South Africa are paying attention to his latest research.

Alexander, a wildlife economist, studies the economic incentives behind human behaviors that contribute to global species decline and endangerment. This year, in collaboration with former Sweet Briar assistant professor of economics Joseph Craig and researchers from the wild cat conservation group Panthera, Alexander published a study in the South African Journal of Wildlife Research titled “Possible relationships between the South African captive-bred lion hunting industry and the hunting conservation of lions elsewhere in Africa.”

Lions are among the most coveted big-game African trophies. According to the study, hunters visiting southern and East Africa pay $1,800 to $3,200 a day for two- to three-week safaris and the chance to shoot a lion. Up to half never encounter one. Those who book trips in South Africa, however, may spend thousands less and, 99 percent of the time, head home with a trophy after a few days. How? The latter participate in “put-and-take” or “canned” hunting, which takes place in an enclosed compound stocked with captive lions bred to be hunted.

Researcher and photographer Rob Alexander captured this photo of a male lion in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

About 90 percent of South African lion hunting is canned hunting, but the practice remains highly controversial. It’s unpopular among animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which recently co-sponsored a petition to list the lion as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. An IFAW commentary described canned hunting as “the cruel practice of containing animals (mostly lions) to fenced-in areas, with animals often drugged or sedated and conditioned to trust humans.”

Some also see canned hunting as detrimental to South Africa’s tourism image. Earlier this year, the international activist group, Avaaz, launched an ad campaign throughout Johannesburg Airport calling for an end to the practice. The South African government ruled in 2010 that lions not be hunted for the first two years of life, but the law was soon eliminated by a Supreme Court ruling.

In 2010, more than twice as many lion trophy exports came out of South Africa than from the rest of Africa combined. How a ban on canned hunting in South Africa would influence wild populations throughout the rest of the continent remains unclear.

“Would there be a sudden surge in demand for wild lions?” Alexander asked.

One argument asserts that hunting captive-bred lions should remove the pressure from wild populations. Another claims that canned hunting increases demand for bones of both wild and captive lions in Asia, where they’re used in traditional medicine.

Alexander joined his longtime collaborator Peter Lindsey of Panthera to bring some clarity, and data, to the controversy. The two had published a paper together in 2006 gauging the potential of wild lion hunting to create incentives that promote habitat and wildlife conservation in several African countries. This concept was supported in a study Lindsey published this year that was met with debate from animal rights groups.

Rob Alexander

Alexander, who is also an accomplished wildlife photographer and has traveled in Africa, tries to remain unbiased.

“It’s something I’ve found to be ironic,” he says. “I’m not a hunter, but as a conservationist, I’m willing for our society to do these things for the sake of conserving the land and the animals that live on it. I have to acknowledge the positive role hunting plays in conservation.”

He and Lindsey saw the potential for a ban on canned hunting to increase danger for the species and its habitats throughout Africa. “This is not just an animal rights issue,” Alexander said. “There is a whole different question about conservation of wild lion populations.”

To determine if canned and wild hunting are related, Alexander and the Panthera researchers asked if the two industries share overlapping markets. They designed and administered a survey to hunters and operators at hunting expos in the U.S. and Germany. The survey helped them compare several aspects of wild and canned hunting, including length of the hunt, hunter success rates and impressions about the two types of hunting.

Alexander brought Craig into the study to work on the statistics and technical aspects of the analysis. This was the first project the two economics professors had worked on together, and Craig’s first environmental project.

“It was really cool for me to work outside of my normal niche,” he said.

His main question was simple: “How responsive are people to changes in lion hunting costs?” Answering the question was not so simple. “Getting accurate data in pricing in Africa is almost impossible,” he said.

In the end, he had too few observations to make statistically supported conclusions. Craig conceded that it’s unlikely any hunting company would agree to the invasive study that would be necessary to really answer his question, because they fear bad publicity.

The survey data did uncover strong trends. Nearly all hunters who had been on wild hunts (96 percent of those surveyed) said they would not be interested in a canned hunting trip. It’s possible the differences in cost and time needed for the two types of hunts create two disparate markets, and those who can take wild hunting trips already do. The survey also revealed, however, that 20 percent of hunters who have gone on canned hunts would consider trying a wild hunt. According to the study, such a shift could have a big impact:

“Owing to the large size of the captive-bred lion hunting industry, even if a small proportion of the market was transferable, the increase in demand for wild lion hunts could be significant if the hunting of captive-bred lions was ever prohibited. A shift of 20 percent of the captive-bred market could lead to an increase of 42.9 percent in the demand for wild lions.”

“If we did have a ban,” Alexander says, “it would be very important for governments of African countries to exert more control over hunting.”

He is quick to note that this study is preliminary. Still, he hopes it will invite people to consider the relationships observed and take precautionary steps, responding to changes in demand rather than dangerous changes in lion populations.

Category: Fall 2012, Features