Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lion's share.

20/08/2008 12:00:00 AM

Africa's lions are in serious trouble, and nowhere near as common as many wildlife documentaries might suggest, says Australian zoologist Dr Luke Hunter.
''Part of the problem is they're relatively easy for tourists to see in the big game parks like Serengeti or the Masai Mara, but the reality is they've actually disappeared from around 80 per cent of their original range across the African continent.

''They're so familiar to us they're in just about every zoo around the world that we don't tend to think of them as a species needing a very serious conservation effort.''

Hunter recently conducted the first comprehensive analysis of the conservation needs of Africa's carnivores (including hyenas and Cape hunting dogs), which involved mapping changes in the territorial ranges of lions over the past 150 years. It revealed lions are now restricted to about 20 per cent of their former distribution.

His survey results also suggest there are only six regional populations (in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa and Mozambique) with at least 1000 adult animals. Previously published population estimates of Africa's lions put their numbers at anywhere from 16,500 to 47,000, but Hunter says these figures are ''essentially guesses''.

''It's worrying when you consider the lion is probably the most studied big cat in the world, but there are still alarming gaps in our knowledge of lion numbers. There's a lot of catch-up conservation science that needs to be done.''

Hunter is a big cat specialist, studying leopards in South Africa, lions in Uganda, cheetahs in Iran and jaguars in South America. He's briefly back in Australia, on a whistle-stop national lecture tour for Science Week, explaining the conservation challenges involved in protecting the world's 36 species of big cats and their disappearing habitats.

Public interest in the topic has been so intense (yesterday he addressed the Royal Geographic Society of Queensland, today he's in Canberra, at the Australian National University) that Hunter has almost lost his voice, fielding a blizzard of questions after his lectures.

''It's fantastic to see people so engaged with the topic. I'm just getting stuck into the throat lozenges and powering on,'' he says. This evening, Hunter is giving a free public lecture at the ANU on a rare co-operative venture between Iran and the United States a conservation program aimed at saving the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah. It involves Iran's Department of Environment and New York based conservation organisation, Panthera, which has a budget of around $US6million to fund big cat research.

''The cheetahs in Iran are a wonderful example of conservation transcending political differences. The Iranians are very committed to cheetah conservation, and justifiably proud of the large-scale conservation program they've developed. They are doing an incredible job.''

Hunter recently led a science team that successfully fitted radio-tracking collars to the cheetahs, allowing their movements across the arid central Iranian plateau to be tracked for the first time. There are thought to be between 60 and 100 Asiatic cheetahs in Iran, the last surviving remnant of a subspecies once occurring across a vast area stretching from the Red Sea, across Afghanistan, to India.

''The collars will help answer key questions about their ecology and behaviour the size of habitat they require for their home ranges, the routes they take to travel between protected areas, and the features of the landscape they depend on, such as den sites.''

As executive director of Panthera, a New York-based conservation organisation dedicated to conserving the world's big cats and their habitats, he co-ordinates a varied research program across North and South America, Africa, Asia and Russia. Projects include tacking Amur tigers in the Sikhote-Alin mountains in Russia, conservation of Pallas cats in Mongolia, population genetics of Kalahari wild cats, cougar dispersal in Yellowstone National Park and population ecology of African golden cats in Gabon.

For Hunter, travelling the world's conservation trouble spots and working on big cat conservation is the realisation of a childhood dream that began in the sprawling south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Rowville. (Black Sorrows singer and saxophonist Joe Camilleri is probably the only other high-profile former Rowville resident.) ''I was crazy about big cats from about the age of three. Both my parents are teachers, so they encouraged me in that interest, and so I grew up collecting anything I could find about big cats. I used to track down scientists who were studying lions and tigers and write to them, asking all sorts of questions.''

Hunter says his global conservation career is proof that persistence and going the hard yards to get good science pays off. He did his honours zoology thesis at Monash University in Melbourne on the social behaviour of guinea pigs, but the skills he gained in designing research programs propelled him onto bigger things.

''I'm living proof that guinea pigs can take you places,'' he jokes.

''Seriously, learning to do good science and how to ask the right questions, were the most important lessons I learned from the guinea pig research. It opened the door for me to do what I really wanted.''

Hunter won a scholarship to study the behaviour and ecology of cheetahs and lions reintroduced to areas of their former territorial range. A decade later, his research on the impacts of trophy hunting on leopard populations in South Africa resulted in new laws to protect leopards and the establishment of a designated protected area for leopards in Maputaland, in KwaZulu-Natal province.

''Again, it was a question of doing the science to prove that changes were necessary. Quotas for trophy hunting are often assigned on the basis of poor information, and we discovered leopard quotas were being based on information that was way out of date. It was simplistic and it meant leopard populations were being way over-estimated.

''The quotas also allowed female leopards to be shot, which struck me as a mistake in terms of conservation management. It took three years for our team to get the science to demonstrate the impact this was having on leopard numbers, but we did it. If we hadn't done the science, we wouldn't have had the evidence that led to an overhaul of the trophy hunting regulations.''

Trophy hunting is a system which allows tourists to pay a fee to shoot game animals that have been assessed as relatively common. Strict quotas are established, but Hunter argues many of these are not based on scientific surveys.

''I believe there are still problems with trophy hunting of lions. We've got data that shows the impact of shooting male lions has a kind of ripple effect, and speeds up the rate of infanticide of lion cubs. What appears to happen, is that trophy hunting accelerates the natural turnover rate of males in a pride, and that in turn affects the killing of unrelated lion cubs when new males move in and take over the pride.

''Based on this new data that's emerging, there's strong case for either reducing the hunting quotas or limiting the age of the male lions that can be legally shot.''

Dr Luke Hunter will give a free public lecture this evening on Panthera's conservation program to protect Asiatic cheetahs in Iran. Manning Clark lecture theatre 1, 5.30pm.

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