By Kevin Heath
When Tourism and Arts Minister, Jean Kapata, announced a return to hunting of big cats in Zambia a couple of weeks ago she said that population levels of leopards and lions were sufficient to support a renewed hunt. The results of a survey by the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) would suggest otherwise.
Rather than any growth in numbers of big cat populations since the ban was introduced in 2013, numbers of both lions and leopards are worryingly low. Kapata used the results of an aerial survey to re-introduce hunting in Zambia. ZAWA used a more accurate and log-term monitoring method of surveying.
In the press release associated with the survey results ZAWA said, “ZAWA is taking a cautionary approach to the lion population. It is currently estimated that in all the three clusters there are between 1,500 to 2,500 lions and about 4,000 leopards as the worst case scenario,”
Zambia, it said, had only three big cat populations – in the Luangwa Valley, Kafue and Lower Zambezi ecological systems.
This compares with the figures that the tourism ministry used which stated there were 4,000 lions and over 8,000 leopards. ZAWA has concerns over the methodology of the aerial survey saying that big cats are secretive and can not be surveyed using the same methods as counting zebras and wildebeests.
Despite the difference in population ZAWA agrees with the premise that the population can support hunting.
“Hunting of big cats contributes to the local and the national economy through job creation, tourism, and ultimately income generated contributes significantly to conservation of wildlife resources,” public relations officer Sakabilo Kalembwe stated.
He stated that only selected lions would be hunted. “Guidelines regulating lion hunting have been developed. These guidelines prescribe hunting of male lions aged six years and above and these lions should not be associated with any pride. This implies that these cats being hunted are old and are no longer breeding, thus have a diminished biological function,” [sic\.