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The selous game reserve in Southeast Tanzania is the largest in Africa. Established in 1905 and stretching over 21,000 sq. mi., it is bigger than Switzerland and chock-full of wildlife: 4,000 lions, 110,000 buffalo, 50,000 elephants. But because it is hard to access, covered with dense scrub and lacking in the spectacular vistas found in the Serengeti to the north, it draws fewer than 5,000 visitors annually--less than 1% of tourists who visit Tanzania. To pay for the upkeep of the Selous and for antipoaching patrols over its vast area, the reserve's managers rely on another source of funding: big-game hunters. In Tanzania, hunters will pay up to $80,000 to shoot a lion. In 2002, 226 trophy lions were shot in Tanzania, many in the Selous reserve.
Conservationists used to choke on the topic of hunting, but increasingly they are prepared to accept some limited and tightly controlled hunts when they generate revenue for locals who might otherwise kill off the predators. "It seems counterintuitive that killing animals can be good for conservation," says Frank. "But trophy hunting is extremely lucrative, and in order to produce a few trophy males, it is a necessity to preserve vast ecosystems."
Lion hunting also provides revenue in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, though Kenya banned the practice in 1975. Most countries operate on a quota system. They estimate the lion population and set a sustainable quota for hunting. A study published this year by wildlife experts at the University of Minnesota has raised new interest in trophy hunting. Based on 40 years of data from northern Tanzania, the study showed that if hunters confined themselves to shooting male lions at least 5 years old, after they have bred and their cubs have matured, there's no noticeable long-term effect on the overall population. Researchers attribute this to the fact that male lions, while necessary for reproduction, do little to help raise their cubs. (Indeed, males typically kill the youngest cubs when they take over a pride.) Mature males also happen to be what trophy hunters prize, since a male's mane reaches its full glory after age 4. Lions 5 years or older can be identified by their noses, which are at least 50% black. Already the Tanzanian Wildlife Division and some professional hunters are advising clients to take aim at the older lions.
Still, many conservationists remain wary of trophy hunting in any shape or form. It works only with strict enforcement, says ecologist Craig Packer, who led the Minnesota study. "The temptation is to raise quotas to unsustainable levels because of the profit motive."
LAST RESORT: BREEDING PROGRAMS