by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
I will not take this lion down
I first heard of “lion burgers” when an e-mail from an animal protection list I’m on urged me to go to a New York Daily News website, and vote in a poll. Typically, the poll questions were over-simplistic. The answers to the question of whether or not the voter approves of burgers containing the meat of a lion were “Yes, Sounds good to me” or “No way. Lions are endangered” and finally, “I don’t know”.
I voted no, but not because lions are endangered. Technically the lion, (Panthera leo), is currently listed as “vulnerable”, not “endangered”, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is listed on Appendix II (meaning controlled commercial trade may be legal) not Appendix I (to which species too endangered to be commercially traded are assigned) of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
On the other hand, the Asian subspecies (Panthera leo persica) is critically endangered, restricted to about 300 animals found only in the Gir Forest of India. It was the famous “Lion of Persia”, now long gone from that region. And IUCN and CITES listings don’t always keep up with realty.
In fact we are not sure how many lions are left in the rest of their range but we do know that they are in continuing decline and exist at a fraction of former numbers. They are not only still desired by trophy hunters, but are routinely regarded as “nuisance” wildlife to be trapped or poisoned in unregulated numbers in order to protect livestock. Their natural habitat is continually encroached upon, their natural prey – mostly medium to large-sized ungulates – is also often in decline. Lions are susceptible to various livestock diseases and a plenitude of parasites. Natural mortality of young lions is very high.
The lion once ranged north even into Europe but is now entirely extirpated from the entire region north of the southern edge of the Sahara, barring only that relict population of Asian lions in the Gir Forest. In sub-Sahel Africa, many populations are isolated from the main populations, possibly at levels too low to sustain themselves over time.
The nominate race, P. l. leo, the so-called “Barbary lion”, is extinct in the wild, as is P. l. melanochaitus , the so-called “Cape Lion”, which may have been a southern extension of a more northern race, but is still gone from all of southern Africa. Another race, P. l. nubica., the so-called “Tsavo lion”, is restricted to Kenya, most specifically Tsavo National Park, while the so-called “Congo lion”, P. l. azandica, has not had its population size evaluated.
But the lion burgers referenced derived not from any wild population, but from a captive animal. The burgers are being sold in a restaurant in Mesa, near Phoenix, Arizona. The article accompanying the poll quoted restaurant owner Cameron Selogie, saying, “We thought that since the World Cup was in Africa...that the lion burger might be interesting for some of our more adventurous customers.” They had to pay $21.00 per burger. The meat was supplied by Chicago butcher Richard Czimer, who, according to news reports, was once sentenced to six months in prison from selling meat of “officially” endangered leopards and tigers. CNN reported that “Czimer admitted to purchasing the carcasses of 16 tigers, four lions, two mountain lions and one liger – a tiger-lion hybrid...— which were skinned, butchered and sold as ‘lion meat’ for a profit of more than $38,000.”
I am sick and tired of the sheer arrogance with which so many of us treat the rest of the living world. The lion is a magnificent creature, and there is something so demeaning in treating it as a gastronomic novelty. There is risk, too, in creating market demand, however unlikely that seems. Currently the undoubtedly and quite officially endangered Tiger is actually bred in farms in China to provide meat, bones and other products for human consumption, albeit more for bogus health than for nutritional need, but then nutrition has nothing to do with whatever motivates customers for the lion burgers in Arizona. Meanwhile, products from captive tigers drives continued poaching for wild ones. The IUCN recognizes three of five races of tigers as “critically endangered” with the remaining “endangered”, and yet the demand for dead wild tigers continues.
The meat of carnivores is not tasty or healthful, and not surprisingly the lion burgers are mixed with ground beef. Cows are herbivores; lions are not. That said the last thing we need is to bring yet another species into the process of domestication to provide yet another meat for the plates of Americans already sated with vastly more meat in their diet than was ever “naturally” consumed by the ancestral species from which we evolved.
On November 26, 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report that found “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.” We need to climb down the food chain, not up it. Think about it. Livestock accounts for 9 percent of CO2 produced by humans, and 37 percent of all human generated methane (which is 23 times as “warming” as CO2), 64 percent of ammonia (a factor in acid rain) and a staggering 65 percent of all nitrous oxide for which humans are responsible, and it is a gas that has 296 times more “Global Warming Potential” than CO2.
Livestock uses 30 percent of the earth’s land surface, and while some of this land may not be suitable to produce human food, most can, but instead of feeding humans, the vegetation grown on this land, using enormous amounts of water, is fed to animals, which are fed to humans who can (as we vegetarians and vegans well know) survive and be more healthy without it! It’s insane. And livestock production ironically leads to the mass destruction of just such vulnerable wild predators as lions and leopards.
Think about it...if we start eating carnivores we’ll have to raise vegetation to feed livestock to produce a greatly diminished amount of food available to humans, but then turn around to feed the livestock to the obligate carnivore, to produce meat that can be made into $21.00 hamburgers...all this as people, mostly children, die from malnutrition or contaminated water (livestock being a major source of said contamination) by the minute, millions per year in Africa alone.
It is utterly fanatical, elitist, arrogant, and abusive to our ever more stressed planet. And that is why I voted “no”.