Botswana's Lions

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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Botswana's Lions

The annual Safari Club International Convention was held, as usual, in the United States of America in late January 2001. As is customary every year, America’s several SCI State Chapter conventions were held either just before or just after the main convention itself. The purpose of these gatherings is to allow hunters from all over the world to see what hunting opportunities are on offer internationally, and to facilitate the sale of their government-approved trophy quotas by representatives of the world’s safari hunting industries.

Amongst those who attended were professional hunters and hunting outfitters from Botswana who participated in the convention circus in order to sell, inter alia, their government-approved lion-hunting quotas for the year. As usual, the lion hunts were quickly sold out. After the conventions were over the Botswana hunters returned home to find that their government had, precipitously, placed an indefinite moratorium on lion hunting in the country and all the booked lion hunts had to be cancelled. As a consequence, many overseas hunters who had planned to hunt in Botswana that year recovered their deposits and re-booked safaris in other countries. The decision, therefore, cost Botswana a great deal in foreign currency.

The reason the government gave for the moratorium was that many people in the game-viewing tourist industry had voiced concern that Botswana’s lion population was in serious decline - and they blamed this state of affairs on various over-hunting practices. The moratorium was a coup de main achieved by Botswana’s anti-hunters when the leading pro-hunters had been outside the country. The scales were tipped when a popular overseas animal rights NGO - who claimed to be specialists in lion “conservation” – lobbied for the cessation of lion hunting amongst the country’s political elite.

A major thrust of the anti-lion-hunters’ argument was that many Botswana citizens, who lived and farmed just outside the boundaries of the protected wildlife areas, were poisoning and shooting large numbers of lions in protection of their domestic stock. Another was the alleged over-killing of pride males by the safari industry.

It was rumoured that the government first tried to stop the killing of lions in protection of domestic stock – and to leave the safari industry intact. This was apparently opposed by the country’s farmers who insisted that if they were not going to be allowed to destroy the lions that killed their cattle, the moratorium should extend to the sport hunters, too. This argument carried the day.

The purpose of the moratorium, the government said, was to assess the validity of all the claims that had been made and, if the lion population was indeed declining, to determine the reasons why. Today, two years later, the moratorium remains in place and nothing seems to have been accomplished with regards to even initiating an investigation.

This state of affairs caused a huge rift between the hunters and the non-hunting game-viewing tourism operators – both of whom are paradoxically part of the same tourism industry. What few people realised was that, behind the scenes, many rabid anti-hunting animal rightist NGOs were pulling the strings. Emotions, for many months, ran high. Nobody sat down to calmly and to coldly evaluate the ecological facts of the matter and/or to think through what this whole debate was about.

The Botswana government had fallen into the trap set for it by the growing army of foreign-based animal rights activists whose NGOs now proliferate in Africa’s post colonial capitals and who are starting to control the direction of official wildlife management programmes everywhere – even in South Africa. It is important, therefore, that we examine the facts pertaining to lion ecology and to reveal the truth about what is going on in Botswana – and what is happening in many similar wildlife situations across the length and breadth of the continent.

The first thing we have to understand is that lions are prolific breeders. Females breed at age 30 months. They have 2 to 5 cubs at a time. If food is plentiful, and if the prides are of the right size for the prey they normally kill, at least 50 percent of the cubs survive. The cubs are independent at age 20 – 22 months, at which time the young males, and often the young females, too, are evicted from their parental prides. They then become nomads - or vagrants - and they wander the countryside looking for a home range of their own.

This state of affairs pertains all over Africa.

In established game reserves that support a lion population, available lion home ranges and lion territories are always dynamically full to capacity. This means that as the young nomads move about the sanctuary they cannot find a place to settle down. They are pushed from pillar to post, being forced to scavenge for their meals, or to kill and eat where and when they can, before being forced to move on. Theirs is a wanderer’s life, therefore, that exists only on the outskirts of, or in between, where the established prides are living. It is a hard life that is full of conflicts and many nomads are killed and eaten by other lions or by hyenas.

IF a vacant home range IS found – such as might occur, for example, when a new bore-holed game water supply is commissioned – the young nomads will settle down. A new territorial pride will then become established. Few nomads, however, ever become fixed into any kind of permanent home range.

Home ranges are places where animals satisfy their “living needs” – or “survival needs”. They provide the animals with air, water, food and shelter (security). Home ranges become fixtures in an adult animal’s life out of which the occupier rarely ventures. To do so is to invite a stranger to occupy the vacancy – and to invite conflict upon themselves from lions living in the strange places into which the wanderer ventures. Home ranges are not easy to secure in a saturated habitat so they are important finds for nomadic lions.

Territories, on the other hand, are concerned with breeding. Territories are ‘owned’ by fully mature males - which gather around themselves units of breeding females. Territories are defended by the big males - which chase off other male lions that might want to intrude. A young male lion’s home range will become his territory if he survives into full adulthood. Sometimes two males, or more, will hold down a territory. When this happens it is most likely they are brothers that grew up as nomads together. In all such cases one male is always dominant.

Much has been surmised about what happens when the dominant male of a pride is killed. It is said that this event is followed by a period of turmoil in the pride and that, when a new male takes over, he kills all the cubs that were sired by his predecessor. That this happens there is no doubt. That it is a regular and normal behaviour pattern, however, nobody knows.

A cold-blooded review of this cub-killing behaviour suggests that even if the phenomenon is the order of the day it probably has little impact on the fortunes of the population as a whole. This is because cubs sired by the newcomer will replace those he has killed within a few months.

Note: One must always remember that all the individuals of a lion population need to do, to render their population “stable”, is that they replace themselves ONCE within their own life-time. And lionesses remain fecund for a dozen years and more after they reach maturity! A great deal of natural mortality, therefore, occurs within normal lion populations.

The killing of cubs by large male nomads also takes place - which probably happens more frequently than most people realise. I watched just such an event unfold in Hwange some years ago. Three male nomads one day entered the territory of two large males near the game reserve’s Main Camp headquarters. The big males were absent - hunting nearby - at the time, so the nomads challenged the two lionesses of the pride one of which had four not-so-small cubs. A battle royal ensued the end result of which was that all four cubs were killed – which the nomads then ate. They had long gone by the time the pride males returned to their mates.

Sometimes the nomads are cornered by the big territorial males – and killed – whereupon they are often eaten by their killers. This, too, might happen more frequently than most people think.

Nomads are lions-in-waiting that are always hanging around the fringes of permanent lion society ready to take advantage of any vacancy situations that might occur. They are always being hounded by the resident territorial animals and are really surplus to the permanent population. These nomads are the lions that oft times venture over the game reserve boundaries and predate on domestic animals. The lions that the cattlemen of Botswana destroy in protection of their stock, therefore, are “surplus” animals and their destruction does not really affect the resident lion population in the nearby game reserve at all.

Note: A few years ago the then Natal Parks Board in South Africa were annually paying out large financial awards to local communities on the boundaries of the Kwa-Zulu Natal game reserves, in compensation for cattle killed by lions coming out of the game reserves. It was quickly determined that ALL the culprits were nomads and a management policy was adopted to destroy all young lions within the game reserve prides just before they were evicted. This eliminated the nomad phenomenon and it stopped all the cattle killings.

Note: It has recently become fashionable for people who are concerned about lion “conservation” to fund the capture of nomadic stock-killing lions and return them to the nearby game reserves from whence they came. This practice does NOTHING for lion “conservation”. It just adds extra stress to the more important resident lions that live permanently within the game reserve boundaries.

Male lions reach their prime between the ages of 5 and 7 years. They can hold a dominant position in lion society only until they are about 12. Females conceive for the first time before they are 3 and, thereafter, will continue to produce cubs every two years until they are about 15.

Immediately following the loss of their cubs – for whatever reason - lionesses come into heat again, and four months later produce their next litter.

Lions, therefore, are fecund and quick-maturing animals that have a huge propensity for increasing their numbers rapidly when conditions are right. This being the case it is not difficult to understand why most game reserve lion populations are “at capacity” most of the time. Furthermore, when a pride-male is killed - for whatever reason - there are normally many surplus nomad males to take its place.

When lion society is thus understood, we can reason that IF Botswana’s lions are REALLY in decline, the killing of nomadic stock-killing lions by farmers cannot be the cause. The possibility that hunters on safari may be killing too many mature males in the resident prides then becomes a much more obvious “other” reason for the population decline. And THAT is what the anti-hunters are promoting. When we examine the current ecological circumstances of Botswana’s game reserves in their very broad dimensions, however, a much more probable cause becomes manifest.

In any game reserve the overall sustainable animal biomass (the combined weight of ALL the animals) is determined by the soil-type and its fertility, the species composition of the vegetation, and the average annual rainfall. The nature of the vegetation, taken together with its physical environment, determines the diversity of habitat-mix that occurs - and THAT determines the number of different animal species the game reserve can support.

A game reserve can only produce a certain mass of grass AND a certain mass of browse every year. And THIS finite food supply can sustainably support ONLY a certain number (or biomass) of those different species of animals that eat grass and those that eat browse. Furthermore, the different animal species that eat either grass or browse compete with each other for these limited food resources all the time.

The respective numbers of each animal species, however, are restricted not JUST by the availability of food. Their numbers are determined also by the size of the particular habitats to which each species is especially adapted and by certain species-specific intra-population behavioural traits. So the equation is fairly complicated.

Nevertheless, anyone who makes even the most superficial assessment of the current ecological circumstances of Botswana’s game reserves will very quickly find out that the ecosystems are dominated, throughout, by a hugely excessive elephant population. I believe that Botswana’s elephants exceeded the carrying capacity of their habitats in or about 1960 – when there were only about 7 500 elephants in the country. The current number is in excess of 140 000. This means the habitats are 1 750 percent overstocked with elephants – and the elephant population is still growing. It is, in fact, doubling its numbers every ten years.

Elephants are preferential grazers. That means they prefer to eat grass when it is green and palatable and nutritious. During the summer rains elephants eat grass in preference to woody vegetation. This means that during the wet season elephants are very serious food competitors for grazing animals such as buffalo, zebra, waterbuck, wildebeest, hartebeest and tsessebe, and by the end of the rains, given the huge numbers of elephants present in Botswana, there is then not much grazing left.

During the dry season elephants readily and completely shift their attentions to woody plants – ignoring whatever dry grass then exists. This means that, during the cold winter and hot early summer period, elephants become serious food competitors of the browsing animals.

The elephants’ ability to completely switch their diet - from grass to woody plants – combined with their huge size, makes them uniquely adapted to totally out-compete any and all other herbivores.

The fact that the elephant population in Botswana has exceeded the carrying capacity of its habitat now for more than 40 years means that drastic changes have occurred to the original habitats. Species of plants have been eliminated in the principal habitat types and they have totally changed in character. So great has much of this change been that many sensitive animal species that have very special habitat requirements have also disappeared. This process of local extinction of both plant and animal species is still in progress.

A few species - like impala (which are also grazer/browsers) - have benefited from the changed habitats and their numbers have increased. These animals have now joined the elephants as serious competitors for ALL available food supplies. And as the habitats have changed, and as the numbers and biomasses of plant species in the habitats have been reduced or eliminated by the elephants (and impala), so the volume of plant food produced by the habitats each year has consistently declined.

What has happened in Botswana over the last many years is that as the numbers of elephants have increased and - because the elephants eat most of the limited and constantly declining grass and browse produced each year – the numbers of the other herbivore species have declined correspondingly. This includes both grazers AND browsers. And these “other” herbivores represent the food base for the country’s lion population!

What must be understood about this situation is that just as a reduction in grass and browse MUST reduce the numbers of the animals that depend upon these herbivorous foods to survive, so MUST the numbers of lions decline, too, when their prey-food base is similarly reduced.

Within this ecological circle ups and downs will occur. The constantly changing circumstances wrought by too many elephants may for a time, or from time to time, enhance the survival chances of animals like lions. Lions will benefit, for example, when, at the height of each dry season, young-of-year herbivores die of starvation in large numbers. Food for the lions is then, in the short term, plentiful. But as their living food base becomes generally more diminished each year so the ability of the prey animals to maintain a sustainable large lion population declines correspondingly.

My own evaluation of the purported decline in the Botswana lion population – IF it is true - therefore, is that the hugely expanded elephant population has much more to do with the decline than does the possibility of over-hunting by the safari industry. And if a decline in the lion population is NOT currently happening, it WILL happen sooner or later - and it will become more and more intense - as the ecological syndrome I have outlined above reaches its ultimate conclusion.

I have a gut feeling that Botswana’s lion population has indeed declined in recent years. I say this because all the ecological indications that this was bound to happen have been manifest for decades. I sincerely believe that the ecological factors created by the fact of there being too many elephants in the country, is the principal and real reason why this has happened.

The BEST way to help the lions of Botswana recover their former numbers, therefore, is to drastically reduce the country’s grossly excessive elephant population. Achieving and maintaining, by a system of pro-active management, a state of ecological stability between what is left of the elephant population after it has been seriously reduced by management, and the habitats that support it, will also save the country’s overall bio-diversity which, currently, is taking a pounding. What I am absolutely sure about is that prohibiting the “sustainable” trophy hunting of lions – no matter how low may be their numbers - will NOT help the lions to recover their former population numbers under the circumstances I have here described.

Paradoxically, the very people who called for the lion-hunting moratorium to be put in place in Botswana, are exactly the same people who oppose the culling of elephants!
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