Staggering natural wonders—such as Victoria Falls, considered to be the world’s biggest curtain of falling water (not because of a singular dimension, such as height or width, but because of all dimensions taken into account, including flow rate)—and a massive network of remote national parks where you can encounter most of Africa’s iconic wildlife make any adventure to Zambia a nature lover’s dream come true and an inspiration for some epic travel stories.
Now, new research is showing that Zambia’s lions are telling their own travel stories of a sort: tales about their times caught in wire snares, noose-like traps used to poach bushmeat and control carnivores. And those stories could help researchers improve conservation efforts in the country.
With both wild lions (Panthera leo) and leopards (Panthera pardus) having declined in numbers across their former range on the African continent and classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), vigorous efforts to conserve big cats are particularly important.
Numbers of notched teeth
This narrative about Zambia’s lions begins in a hunting camp more than a decade ago. That’s when University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), biologist Paula White puzzled over the heavy skull of a trophy-hunted lion. Zambia permits limited hunting in certain areas to help fund its national conservation program, and White had gained permission to examine such trophy skulls and hides to evaluate how hunting was affecting conservation initiatives.
The skull that she was looking at had a pronounced, horizontal, V-shaped notch on one of the canine teeth, a marking White had never seen before from natural wear. Over the next few months, she began noticing similar notches on the teeth of other lions.
It wasn’t until three years later, when she visited lions bred in captivity and saw them gnawing on a wire fence, that it clicked: the tooth notches she had seen in wild lions must have resulted from the animals chewing their way out of wire snares. Those kinds of traps pose a double threat to lions and leopards: they reduce prey populations and inadvertently catch large carnivores.
The sheer number of notched teeth White had been seeing suggested that such traps, illegal in conservation areas, were injuring far more lions than experts had estimated.
Increasing shotgun injuries
From 2007 to 2012, White crisscrossed Zambia examining and photographing the hides, skulls and teeth of trophy-hunted lions and leopards. She shared her photos with UCLA paleobiologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a carnivore tooth-wear expert.
The two researchers analyzed White’s photos of 112 lions and 45 leopards in two Zambian conservation areas and found that 37 percent of the lions and 22 percent of the leopards had snare scars and tooth notches. Their study was published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science in February 2022.
The scientists were surprised by the findings that more than a third of the lions and more than a fifth of the leopards that White examined in the Luangwa Valley and the Greater Kafue Ecosystem—which include Zambia’s largest conservation areas—had old snare injuries, even though they suspected existing data undercounted the problem. Previous estimates suggested that only 5 percent to 10 percent of Zambia’s lions had snare injuries, and there was virtually no prior data on such wounds among the nation’s leopards.
The authors also discovered that 30 of the 112 lions had shotgun pellets embedded in their skulls and that 13 of the 30 had both shotgun and snare injuries.
Both locals and wildlife officials use shotguns with buckshot ammunition (made of lead balls) to ward off predators. If a projectile hits an animal’s eyes or face, it can cause serious harm; and the pellets can remain embedded in the skull, causing lead poisoning.
Mounting poaching problems, but making policy strides
In their published report, the authors noted that overall rates of injuries among animals in Zambia’s conservation areas are probably even higher than the current study suggests because researchers can’t count snared animals that never escaped or died undetected.
Some of the lions and leopards are injured or killed when they become unintended victims of wire snares set by poachers to catch wild game, while others succumb to traps meant to protect poaching camps. Some poachers intentionally capture the big cats to sell their claws, teeth and other body parts. The animals can also be struck inadvertently by shotgun pellets when people attempt to scare them away from homes or livestock.
Even for those big cats that do escape death, their injuries—damaged teeth, feet severed by snares and lead-shot poisoning—can seriously hinder their ability to compete for resources, such as food, mates and territory.
Happily, White’s research has already helped Zambia bring about policy changes in its Department of National Parks and Wildlife, which has lowered the number of lions that can be hunted annually by about two-thirds, stipulated that only older animals may be hunted and required that each trophy taken be examined by officials to confirm its age.
On the other hand, White said, problems such as habitat encroachment and poaching continue to pose ever greater threats to big cats in their natural habitats.
Compounding conservation efforts
Currently, according to World Wildlife Fund, only about 23,000 lions remain in the wild, and leopards are thought to be extinct in 23 of their original 85 habitat countries. The main threats to African lions and leopards are human activities, such as conflicts with locals, invasion of protected areas, poaching and declining prey populations due to the wildlife meat trade.
However, if countries would expand their existing inspections by requiring trophy hunters to share remains for forensic examination and systematic photographic archiving to document snare scars, tooth damage or old, embedded shotgun pellets before they export their trophies, determining whether current conservation programs are effectively reducing the number of human-caused injuries to the animals from illegal activities would become easier.
As long as hunting continues, it would be worthwhile for scientists to work with hunters to obtain information that would otherwise be lost and which will truly benefit conservation. By comparing the past 10 years of data with data collected 10 years from now, for example, we should hopefully be able to see a reduction in these types of injuries—if antipoaching efforts are successful.
It’s another case of animals who have gone before helping those still here.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,