[Editor's note: This commentary is prompted by a rancher's move to kill one of the Santa Monica Mountains' beleaguered mountain lions after one or more of those lions killed ten alpacas and a goat. As we published this piece, the owner of the unfortunate livestock was reportedly negotiating an alternative, non-lethal response to the puma depredation. We will update this story as necessary.]
Biologist Alessandra Soresina spent much of the late 1990s and early 2000s driving around looking for big cats. She knew the local feline population well enough that eventually she'd amassed massive files on each individual. She knew their movements, she knew which cats were friends with which other cats, and she'd even made some guesses as to the structure of their family trees. But sometimes after seeing an individual two or three times in a year, they'd disappear. Entire social groups would collapse.
The cats that Soresina was after were not mountain lions, but African lions, and she wasn't driving around the Santa Monica Mountains, but Tanzania's Tarangire National Park.
At first, Soresina blamed the hunting blocks that lied just outside the park's boundaries. Lions born inside the park would eventually wander onto private property where they became fair game for a wealthy trophy hunter. It's a compelling way to explain the males with their impressive manes who would disappear. But why were the females disappearing just as often?
As University of Minnesota lion researcher Craig Packer explains in his book Lions in the Balance, Soresina was right that the local lion population was disappearing, but her explanation proved ultimately incorrect. It wasn't the hunters who were responsible for decimating the so-called King of the Jungle. It was the others who lived just outside the park: Maasai pastoralists.
African lions are no dummies. Their typical prey, like impala or wildebeest, requires quite a bit of energy to hunt. These hoofed creatures have evolved an awareness of the threat posed by lions. They remain vigilant, always ready to run – fast – at a moment's notice. So if a lion comes across a domestic cow or goat, creatures unprepared for the threat of lion predation, and ill equipped to escape, it’s a no-brainer. The lion can enjoy an easy meal without having to work for it. When this happens, many Maasai kill a lion in retaliation.
Many of the lions tracked by Soresina ultimately met their end when confronted with the tip of a Maasai spear. Others were poisoned.
Down to as few as 20,000 individuals worldwide, African lions (Panthera leo) have been relegated to just 17 percent of their historical range in Africa. While mainstream news headlines might lead you to believe that legalized trophy hunting is their main problem, the species (classified as threatened by the IUCN) suffers from habitat loss, depletion of prey, and retaliatory killing for the real or perceived losses of livestock, among other threats.
Mountain lions (Puma concolor), on the other hand, aren't doing so badly. The IUCN classifies them as a species of least concern, and while they've been pushed out of most of their historic range in North America, they've retained footholds in the American West through Central America, and all the way down to the southernmost tip of Chile. But the local population in the Southland tells a different story. Because the Santa Monica Mountains form an isolated island hemmed in by an ocean of concrete and cars, the local population of cougars faces a 15-22 percent chance of dying out in fifty years. By 2065, the risk skyrockets to 99.7 percent. In many ways, our cougars are worse off than Africa's lions.
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that a mountain lion probably killed a herd of alpacas and a goat in the hills of Malibu. While there are plenty of mule deer for the mountain lions to eat, like their African cousins, these cats are no dummies. Why work hard for a meal when there's a literal buffet waiting behind a fence where they can't escape? Indeed, as NPS explains, at least four local lions have been implicated in livestock predation events recently. Even P-22 snuck a koala when he thought no one was looking.
Despite some reports, this is not aberrant behavior, but altogether predictable. "Mountain lions don't discern much of a difference between an alpaca and a deer—just that penned animals are much easier to catch," said Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, California Director for the National Wildlife Federation.
While the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) concurs that a mountain lion appears responsible for these unfortunate deaths, and the National Park Service (NPS) confirms that a male called P-45 was in the area during the night in question, DNA evidence has not yet identified the individual lion responsible. Indeed, mountain lions use every inch of the little habitat available to them in the Santa Monicas, with overlapping territories much smaller than would be the case in a larger landscape. It could have been one of a number of lions.
As is their right under state law, the owner of the alpacas requested a depredation permit from CDFW. Obligated to do so, CDFW then granted the permit. According to CDFW spokesperson Steve Gonzalez, the permit allows the property owner (domestic livestock are considered property) to hire a hunter to kill the mountain lion within ten days, within a radius of ten miles from the incident. However, Gonzalez says, the "depredation permit was issued for one mountain lion, not any particular mountain lion."
Which means any mountain lion in the area, during the period the permit is active, is fair game. Whether or not that particular lion was responsible.
This detail makes it clear that the goal is not to eliminate any future predation events by one guilty lion, but rather to mitigate the grief and anger experienced by the property owner.
Though they couldn't be more different in wealth and privilege, the Malibu-dwelling alpaca rancher and the Maasai pastoralist have something in common: bloodlust. Revenge. Hatred. Fear.
The story is a common one. It plays out in Brazil, where ranchers lose cattle to jaguars. It plays out in Tajikistan, where farmers lose goats to snow leopards. Or in Sweden, where herders lose reindeer to lynxes and wolves. There's even an entire, secretive branch of the US government devoted to slaughtering wild predators to protect the nation's livestock industry.
When the needs of humans and their property collide with the needs of wild animals with which many genuinely hope to coexist, what can be done?
In some places, effective predator conservation builds upon economic incentives. Rather than allowing an aggrieved property-owner to kill a predator, they are offered a small monetary reimbursement to offset the loss of their livestock.
But these sorts of strategies are only work where the losses are purely economic, a scenario unlikely for Malibu, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. While the National Wildlife Federation has announced plans for providing livestock owners with financial assistance for fortifying their livestock enclosures, this will not solve the problem on its own. Indeed, these alpacas were reportedly thought of as pets. The relationship would therefore have been emotional. In other words, predator conservation here is a psychological problem, not an economic one.
As I wrote in 2014 in Conservation Magazine, researchers have learned that "cautious coexistence driven by altered social norms" is often more effective a predator conservation tactic than is "rigid defensiveness driven by externally imposed economic remuneration." In other words, the best way to save our mountain lions, which will continue to get themselves in trouble from time to time as they eke out a meager living in our human-dominated landscape, is to build a culture of tolerance.
The good news is that Los Angeles, with its successful #SaveLACougars campaign and its intense love of Griffith Park-dwelling P22, is well on its way towards building just such a culture. "As wildlife loses more and more of their territory to more and more people—who bring domestic animals and livestock—we have to take responsibility for creating conditions for coexistence with the native wild inhabitants of the land," says Pratt-Bergstrom.
Any puma in the area during the depredation permit period is fair game, whether or not that particular lion was responsible for the livestock deaths.
It turns out that scientists have some good ideas about this as well.
Just this week, CDFW and NPS are co-teaching a workshop to help those who live in mountain lion country learn how to best protect themselves, their pets, their livestock, and their property. The best defense, after all, is a strong offense.
But providing tips for avoiding negative interactions alone simply serves to highlight the potential downsides of living alongside predators, and actually reduces tolerance for the carnivores with their big, sharp teeth and long, scary claws.
Instead, information for reducing risk must be paired with information about the benefits of coexistence. This has proven effective for building a culture of tolerance around black bears in Ohio and around tigers in Nepal.