About 10 years ago, when the Department of Environmental Affairs tackled the issue of canned lion hunting, the resultant legislation ruled that captive-bred lions had to be released into large areas for two years before they could be commercially hunted.

Durban - There are about 30 000 lions left in Africa, confined to ever-smaller living spaces as the human populations and expanding farmlands erode the territory once occupied by the king of the beasts.

Across the continent, lion numbers are thought to have crashed by at least 30 percent in the past two decades, leaving Tanzania with the largest remaining population of wild lions.

These are some of the conclusions of the latest status review report on African lions, which is to be presented in Mexico at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The report says lions are extinct in north Africa. They are disappearing fast from west and central Africa, and east and southern Africa are the last strongholds. Throughout Africa, there are only 15 game reserves or national park areas that have more than 500 lions and only nine countries which each have populations of at least 1 000 lions.

Prepared by Dr Samuel Kasiki, deputy director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and Elly Hamunyela, the deputy director of Namibia’s Natural Resources Department, the report said it was difficult to estimate accurately the number of free-ranging lions. But based on the best available data, the population of wild African lions was thought to be somewhere between 23 000 and 39 000.

The most recent surveys suggest there could be as few as 400 lions left in west Africa, of which only 250 were breeding age adults.

In central Africa, the number was thought be somewhere between 1 000 and 2 850.

East Africa was thought to have between 11 000 and 16 000 lions, while the southern African population was between 10 000 and 20 000.

South Africa was thought to have about 2 800 free-ranging lions – most of them in the Kruger National Park – and up to 3 500 captive lions.

Kasiki and Hamunyela report that between 680 and 1 000 lions, most of them captive-bred, were killed in South Africa by trophy-hunters in 2008 alone. Up to 2 000 wild lions had been shot by trophy hunters in Tanzania in the 10 years ending in 2008.

About 870 lions were shot for trophies in Zimbabwe and at least 168 in Namibia over the same period.

Nevertheless, the writers conclude that the loss of habitat and retaliatory killing from human-lion conflict are the major threats to Africa’s lions – not legal trophy-hunting or trade in lion parts.

For example, hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977, but the report estimates 95 percent of all adult lion deaths are due to retaliation killing by livestock keepers and the increase in the bush meat trade, which has reduced the number of prey available to lions.

It is noted that between 1970 and 2000, there was a 25 percent increase in the amount of land allocated to agriculture.

“The growing human (population) also resulted in an increase in the consumption of bush meat and subsequent decline in prey availability.”

Kasiki and Hamunyela caution, however, that trophy hunting remained a potential threat to wild lions and “the high demand for lion trophies has caused offtakes to be too high in most countries”.

Trophy-hunting also had indirect effects as hunters deliberately targeted adult males. When adult males were shot, other males would take over the pride, killing up to 27 percent of the cubs sired by the pride’s previous males.

l A Cites report on cheetahs by Kristin Nowell suggests there are now only 6 200 wild cheetahs in southern Africa, 2 500 in East Africa and 450 in north, west and central Africa.

There are about 1 600 captive cheetahs in zoos and breeding centres globally, most descended from Namibian wild cheetahs. In the last decade, South Africa had become the world’s biggest exporter of “captive-bred” cheetahs.

The Mercury