UCLA researchers have discovered that wild lions are being trapped in snares, illegal in conservation areas in Zambia and other parts of Africa, and are being injured in far more larger numbers than experts have estimated.
The discovery was published in a journal article in Frontiers in Conservation Science.
UCLA biologist Paula White, while studying trophy skulls and hides of lions in a hunting camp in Zambia, evaluated how hunting was affecting conservation efforts. In her studies, she noticed a pronounced horizontal V-shaped notch on one of the canine teeth — an unusual marking White had not seen from natural wear.
Through her research, it revealed the tooth notches in wild lions resulted from the animals chewing their way out of wire snares, noose traps used by poachers. They are illegal in conservation areas of Zambia.
“It was an odd mix of thrilling to figure out the cause of the notches and horrifying to realize that so many animals had been entangled in a snare at some point in their lives,” said White, director of the Zambia Lion Project and a senior research fellow with the Center for Tropical Research at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Of 112 lions and 45 leopards studied in two Zambian conservation areas, 37% of the lions and 22% of the leopards had snare scars and tooth notches, the UCLA study revealed. Experts previously estimated snares only affected between 5% and 10% of wild lions and leopards.
“Identifying the snare damage to the teeth is a real innovation. I’d never seen anything like those horizontal notches before,” said UCLA paleobiologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a professor emerita of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Usually I’m looking at decades-old skulls in museums, but these are the animals we’re trying to conserve right now. This is real-time information, and that’s what you need for conservation decisions.”
From 2007 to 2012, White examined and photographed the skulls, teeth and hides of lions and leopards across Zambia for her research.
The study 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 embedded shotgun pellets before they export their trophies.