I think that most serious hunters have entertained the idea of hunting the African lion. The lion is a challenging and dangerous animal to hunt and is possibly the most iconic game animal on Earth. Hunting him will test the hunter’s skills and mental fortitude. Due to recent changes in import regulations which have an effect on hunt prices, a lion hunt is more affordable than ever.
Due to current US law, the vast majority of lion hunting opportunities for Americans are hunts where it is impossible to import the skin and skull back to the United States. That does not mean that hunters should not hunt lions. Hunt prices are at a place where they have become as affordable as a plains game hunt for someone wanting to hunt a non-exportable lion. And the experience of the hunt is the same.
There is an internal debate hunters inevitably go through when considering to hunt an animal they cannot legally import back into the United States. Mounted animals and skulls act as a reminder of the hunt and bring honor to the creature so worthy of pursuit. However, laws are laws and some animals cannot be imported despite the fact that there are sustainable enough populations that necessitate hunting.
Ultimately, the hunt is about the experience. On a non-exportable lion hunt, the hunter can still memorialize the hunt through pictures. Nothing is different about the actual hunt. My encouragement to hunters is simple: go and hunt lion. Live the dream you’ve been dreaming. The experience of a lion hunt is like no other, and the opportunity to even hunt African lions is never guaranteed in the future. Although it seems paradoxical, hunting lions is something that will help sustain the populations for generations to come.
When hunters travel to pursue lions, they are actively contributing to their conservation. When hunters spend money on a lion hunt, whether it is a free range hunt or not, it gives lions value. Without value, lion populations reduce or disappear. Africa’s human population is exploding and there is a finite amount of space on the continent. Lions have huge home ranges and require a lot of space. There is a fragile coexistence at best in places where lions live near humans. Lions are dangerous to humans and destructive to wildlife and domestic stock. It is difficult for Westerners to understand the constant danger one lives in when living in the presence of lions. Having travelled to over 20 African countries and spent a lot of time with locals, it is not uncommon to meet people who have been maimed by lions or have had family members or friends maimed or killed by lions.
However, in Africa, if it pays it stays. Hunting dollars from lion hunts make lions worth something to those who live in close proximity to them. In places where hunting is not allowed and there is no market for photographic safaris either, lion populations are low or nonexistent.
It is unfortunate that our own USFWS has become so political in its decision making rather than using scientific data to drive their decisions. Recently, however, USFWS has finally recognized what African countries and hunters have always known. In an October 20, 2016 announcement, Director of US Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe stated that, “sport hunting of wild and wild-managed lions does contribute to the long-term conservation of the species in South Africa.” He also stated that, “lions are not in trouble because of responsible sport hunting.” However, USFWS has still made laws that make importation of lions very difficult, and in many cases, impossible.
Law Changes on Importation of Sport Hunted African Lions
On December 23, 2015, USFWS announced it would restrict trophy hunted African lion imports through a permit system administered under the US Endangered Species Act. The law went into effect on January 22, 2016. Before this date, lions would be imported without an import permit as long as they had the proper CITES export permit from the host country.
The USWFS ruling did a couple of things. First, they split African lions into two scientific subspecies. They categorized Panthera leo melanochaita as East and South Africa lions and designated them as threatened. They designated Central and West African lions as the same subspecies of Asiatic lions, Panthera leo leo, and put them on the endangered list. This part of the ruling pretty much ends importation of sport hunted lions from Central and Western African countries. However, it did not completely shut down trophy hunted imports from East and South Africa, and because their designation is considered “threatened,” they applied rule 4(d) from the Endangered Species Act. This states that import permits for lions will only be given when it can be proven that “the importation of sport hunted P.l. melanochaita trophies will ensure hunting contributes to the survival of the species in the wild.” While USFWS gave examples of some of the things they would look for in permit applications, it was and currently remains ambiguous as to how they will decide which permit applications pass muster.
On October 2016, USFWS ruled that it would not allow imports of lions from South Africa that were not free range (captive reared.) They left the door open to the rest of the East and South African subspecies to possibly be imported, but ultimately they will decide whether or not to grant importation permits on an individual basis.
Rifles for Hunting Non-Exportable Lions
While it is possible to kill a lion with a lesser rifle, hunting laws across Africa generally prohibit using a caliber smaller than a.375 H & H. This is a good thing. It is better to have more than enough power for dangerous game. A.375 is sufficient for the job at hand and anything larger is a bonus. Shots are usually between 30-60 yards, so you can use your judgment on whether or not to use a scope. Ideally, a scope of 1×4 power is best because it allows you to find the lion in the scope quickly in the event of a charge. Open sights are adequate (and quite possibly preferred) but only if you are proficient with them. Use quality expanding bullets (softs) and not solids.
Some outfits allow you to rent a rifle if you do not own a dangerous game caliber rifle. Because shots are usually close, this is not as poor of an option as it seems. It is nice to use a rifle you are familiar with, but it comes down to affordability in the end, and some hunters hate traveling with a firearm.
Bow Hunting Non-Exportable Lions
Lion hunting is conducive to bow hunting because they are usually shot at close range. With the proper equipment, the killing power of a well-placed arrow is irrefutable. However, in the event of a charge, you may as well throw sticks at the lion because (1) you won’t be able to draw in time and (2) even if you could, an arrow does not have any reliable stopping power.
If you are a die-hard bow hunter, it is definitely doable. Any set up that you would use for elk will be sufficient. That being said, use of a 2 blade single bevel broadhead is a good idea to insure penetration through the shoulder bone if the shot is not perfect. Again, it’s better to have more penetration power. Broadside or quartering away shots are what you want, but this is not always easy because if the lion knows your there he will likely be facing you. If you take a head on shot, beware of the mane because it is easy to shoot too low. You do not want to wound a lion. The danger factor is multiplied ten-fold if you do not put a good killing shot on him and he makes his way to the thick stuff.
Equipment for Hunting Lions
On a lion hunt you will be doing a lot of walking and it will likely be hot after the early morning. Make sure your boots are broken in and your clothes fit well enough that they do not get in the way when raising your rifle.
Binoculars are important. Whatever you use for plains game will work fine, but ideally 8 power binoculars are a better choice than 10 power. You will be glassing small clumps of brush for a bedded lion and not trying to estimate the horns of a duiker 300 yards away, so the wider field of view is more important than magnification.
Hunting Methods for Non-Exportable Lions
Lions are generally tracked or baited. If you choose to hunt non-exportable lions, South Africa is the most likely destination due to abundance of lions and the affordable price of the hunts. Most lion hunts in South Africa take place in the northern part of the country in the Kalahari Desert. It is beautiful country and the terrain is conducive to tracking, which is what makes this type of hunt so exciting. The ground is sand covered and holds a lion track very well.
If tracking is the hunting method you will cover miles and miles in a bakkie (truck) through the sand trying to find a track fresh enough to follow. You may also hike to find a track, depending on what your PH thinks is best. When a track is found, the PH and tracker will determine if it is a male or female track. (In some places, female lions can be hunted as well as males.) Next, depending on the layout of the roads in the area you are hunting, your PH may try to box the lion in. This means he will attempt to circle around in the direction the lion is headed and see if he crossed a two track road. Then he may repeat this until he has an idea of where the lion is. This gives you a better chance of catching up to the lion before it gets dark.
Depending on the moisture and density of the sand, you may or may not even see an actual pad mark and toes in the lion tracks. The tracker is mainly looking for the stride of the cat. Felines have a distinctive stride that sets them apart from the ungulates and other predators in the area. If there is a little moisture in the sand, you may see a pad, but rest assured that your tracker knows exactly what he is looking at regardless. Not only will the tracker use the size of the cat’s stride to determine the sex, he will also be looking for clues to help him age the track. This depends on the condition of the sand as well as the wind and sun. It also includes a plethora of other factors trackers use that I am simply not qualified to write about because I am not an African tracker. They are masters of their craft who have learned from past generations and honed their skills through a lifetime. Part of the magic of the hunt is watching the tracker do his work. While tracking in the Kalahari is not as challenging as the rocky and hard ground of the Zambezi Valley, it is still incredible to watch. You will understand the challenge better when you see your tracker spot a lion track from the back of a moving truck amongst an uncountable number of other divots in the sand left by the other game in the area.
When you begin to follow the track, your tracker will be in the lead followed by your PH and then yourself. Although it is tempting to want to have your head down looking at the tracks, it’s important to be alert and looking ahead for the cat. This is your job. The excitement of tracking lies in the fact that you never know where the lion is. He could be miles ahead… or he could be hunkered behind the next bush watching and waiting.
Many lions have no fear of humans and view them as either food or a nuisance rather than a threat. This makes the hunt very different than hunting most other game. While your lion may scamper off as soon as he sees your hunting party approaching, he may simply stand his ground. If he runs off, you keep tracking until the next confrontation. With each confrontation, the lion has less and less patience for your intrusion. If he stands his ground, the confrontation will be unnerving. They are incredible big, especially when viewed face to face on the ground. I can assure you that the confrontation will be like none other you’ve experienced hunting and the memory will last a lifetime.
It is not uncommon for a lion to charge the party, even unwounded. You must be ready in that situation and always be aware of where people are in your hunting party because your rifle bullet is just as deadly as the lion. If possible, the proper way to deal with a charge is to take a knee. This puts you on the same level as the oncoming lion and makes it less likely you will shoot behind him. I have not had such an experience, but have gotten this advice from several dangerous game PHs.
African Lion Hunting Summary
Lion hunting is dangerous. There is no way around this. As Robert Ruark wrote: “You get the lion, or the lion gets you.” A male may weigh 450 pounds. His favorite food is Cape buffalo which can weigh 1500 pounds and he has no problem killing one. While maulings are not common because Professional Hunters are usually very good, the propensity for danger is there and it is very real. It is not called dangerous game for nothing. It is the potential for danger that makes the hunt something very unique and special for those who have not experienced it. A Zimbabwean PH once told me that you hunt dangerous game with different pieces of yourself. He told me you hunt elephants with your legs, leopards with your brain, and buffalo with your guts. Lions, he said, you hunt with your heart.
True conservationists hope that the opportunity to hunt African lions does not end, regardless of importation law status. However, it is possible that in the not so distant future many hunters will wish they would have booked a lion hunt, exportable or not, because the opportunity is not guaranteed.