Notches in lions’ teeth reveal poaching in Zambia’s conservation areas

At a hunting camp in Zambia more than a decade ago, UCLA biologist Paula White wondered about the heavy skull of a trophy hunted lion. License Zambia limit hunting in certain areas to help fund his national conservation program, and White had obtained permission to examine trophy skulls and skins to assess how hunting was affecting conservation efforts.

This particular skull had a pronounced V-shaped horizontal notch on one of the canines – a marking that 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 gnaw through a wire fence, that something clicked: the tooth notches in wild lions resulted from the animals forcing their way out of metal snares – noose-like traps set by poachers. The large number of nicked teeth she had seen suggested that such traps, illegal in conservation areas, were hurting many more lions than experts had estimated.

“It was a strange mix of excitement to understand the cause of the notches and horror to realize that so many animals had been entangled in a trap at some point in their lives,” said White, director of the Zambia Lion. Project and a senior. research fellow with Tropical Research Center at UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability.

From 2007 to 2012, White traveled across Zambia examining and photographing the skulls, teeth and skins of trophy hunted lions and leopards. She shared the photos with UCLA paleobiologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh, an expert on carnivore tooth wear.

They examined White’s photos of 112 lions and 45 leopards in two Zambian conservation areas and found that 37% of the lions and 22% of the leopards had snare scars and dental notches, according to a study published today in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science.

“Identifying neck damage to teeth is a real innovation. I had never seen anything like these horizontal notches before,” said Van Valkenburgh, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Usually I look at decades-old skulls in museums, but these are the animals we’re trying to conserve right now. It’s real-time information, and it’s what you need to make conservation decisions.

Courtesy of Paula White

Images on the left show nicks caused by chewing on metal collars, while those on the right show regular lion wears the teeth.

With lions and leopards having declined in numbers in their former African range and both now classified as “vulnerable”, vigorous conservation efforts are particularly important, the researchers said. The paper recommends requiring trophy hunters to share remains for forensic examination, which would help show whether current conservation programs are effectively reducing the number of human-caused injuries to animals from illegal activities. like poaching.

The researchers 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 the largest conservation areas from Zambia – had old neck injuries, although they suspected existing data underestimated the problem. Previous estimates suggested that only 5-10% of lions in Zambia had snare injuries, and there was virtually no previous data on such injuries in the country’s leopards.

The authors also found that 30 of the 112 lions had shotgun pellets embedded in their skulls, and 13 of those 30 had shotgun and snare wounds.

the study authors noted that overall injury rates among animals in conservation areas are likely even higher than the current study suggests because researchers cannot count trapped animals that never escaped or died undetected.

Some of the lions and leopards are injured or killed when they become unwitting victims of metal snares set by poachers to catch wild game, while others fall victim to snares meant to protect poaching camps. Some poachers intentionally capture big cats to sell their claws, teeth and other body parts. Animals can also be struck by shotgun pellets when people attempt to lead them away from livestock or homes.

The hands hold a metal trap used to trap a lion.

Courtesy of Paula White

More than a third of lions and a fifth of leopards studied showed signs that they had chewed on poachers’ noose-like metal snares like the one pictured here.

Even for those who escape death, their injuries – damaged teeth, severed feet from snares, and lead poisoning – can seriously hamper their ability to compete for resources such as food, mates and territory.

“Our new method for assessing anthropogenic injuries provides a window into the stresses these carnivores experience,” Van Valkenburgh said. “So for every trophy animal, a forensic examination like ours should be routine. Studying dead animals can help keep animals alive.

White’s research has already helped change policies for the Zambian Department of Parks and Wildlife, which has reduced the number of lions that can be hunted each year by around two-thirds, stipulating that only older animals can be hunted. and demanded that every trophy taken be examined. by the authorities to confirm the age. Unfortunately, White said, issues such as poaching and habitat encroachment continue to pose greater threats to conservation.

The document recommends that countries expand their existing inspections by requiring hunters to provide their specimens for systematic photographic archiving to document tooth damage, snare scars or old embedded shotgun pellets before exporting. their trophies. The authors note that it is also possible to detect tooth wear injuries on tranquilized lions.

“I wholeheartedly believe that as long as the hunt continues, scientists working with hunters can gain information that would have been lost that will really benefit conservation,” White said. “We could compare data from the last 10 years with data 10 years from now. Hopefully if anti-poaching efforts are successful, we will see a reduction in these types of injuries.

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