As most of my friends know, I have a very special place in my heart for lions. I aspire to work with and for them, researching and monitoring their remaining vulnerable populations. For those that are not aware of the threats they face, this is the post for you! I am focusing on African lions here, Asiatic lions are for a whole other post 😉
The ‘Roar’ Information
Lions are Africa’s largest big cat, powerful and majestic, the King of the Beasts is the forefront of most people’s minds when they think of Africa.
“Lion: the fiercest and most magnanimous of the four footed beasts“
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
Described as “Gregarious, territorial, matriarchal society, communal care, male coalitions.” (Richard Estes) Lions are the only truly social cat living in resident prides, usually consisting of related females and their cubs. Dominant males fight to maintain breeding rights and territories. Prides are known to occupy territorial ranges from as low as 20km² in the most suitable habitats, to more than 500km².
Although lions have no natural predators, their numbers have unthinkably plummeted by over 40% in the last three generations (WWF). They once roamed across most of Africa, parts of Asia and even Europe. Now they are found only in sub-Saharan Africa, and one very small population (c.450-500) in India’s Gir Forest. African Lions are classified as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN with around 20,000 left in the wild and a decline of their geographic range of 92%. There are now only ten areas across this vast continent that are considered as lion strongholds: 4 in East Africa and 6 in Southern Africa.
Surprising Reasons to Save Them
Apart from the most logical and basic argument that we, as a fellow animal species, do not have the right to exterminate them, there are many reasons to save lions – ecological, financial, and spiritual. The African lion is one of the world’s most iconic species, and has played a role across the world in symbolism and culture. Just walk around some of the world’s cities and you’ll see a dozen lion statues, big or small, the more famous of which reside in front of the New York Public Library and in Trafalgar Square in London. Because of this, and the charismatic nature of the species, there is a vast international interest in lion conservation making them powerful ambassadors.
As apex predators, lions also have a pivotal role to play in the ecosystem. The removal of top carnivores from ecosystems can have long-lasting negative ecological impacts to other species as well as the habitat itself. For example, without lions to prey on them, populations of buffalo, hyena and other smaller predators would soar.
You also cannot question the high economic value lions have to the countries where they remain. They are one of the top attractions for tourists of all kinds, as well as for trophy hunters, as controversial as it is, bringing in revenue. Ecotourism alone generates around $80 billion a year, which helps local communities and economies (Dereck Joubert). Very few people would come on safari if they knew they wouldn’t have a chance at seeing the king of the beasts.
The urgency and importance of their conservation comes from the fact that lions have experience a dramatic decline in both their numbers and their geographic range over recent decades.
“A large animal needs a large area. If you protect that area, you’re also protecting thousands of other plants and animals. You’re saving all these species that future generations will want – you’re saving the world for your children and your children’s children. . . . The destruction of species is final. If you lose a species, you lose the genes, you lose all the potential drugs and potential foods that could be useful to the next generations. The ecosystems will not function as they have” Dr George Schal
The ‘Mane’ Issues
Such a heavy decline in African Lion populations is down to a variety of causes including: habitat and prey loss, conflicts with local communities and their livestock, trophy hunting, poaching and illegal wildlife trade and disease and climate change.
I won’t be talking in depth about all of these as that may take forever, but instead I’ll give summaries of these issues and some examples of incredible work and progress made to save this magnificent species.
Habitat & Prey Loss
Africa’s human population now exceeds 1.2 billion …. 1.2 billion people vs 20,000 lions …. that maths is not hard to do!
With so many people now requiring land and resources to live off of, this only results in one thing, taking that land and those resources away from wildlife. ‘Wild’ land in Africa is normally converted to others land-uses that are more economically viable to support the local communities. Prey species preferred by lions such as zebra and wildebeest are also attractive to humans for food consumption and other products made from their skins etc. Game meat is sought-after in local communities and is often obtained illegally through poaching.
As habitat is lost, lion populations become fragmented within small pockets of protected areas with relatively little or no natural movement of animals between them. Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania are most of the few countries where lion populations are still maintained outside of protected areas. If migration does happen, this often means lions move into surrounding areas with less than desirable habitats and more than likely these are inhabited by humans, causing direct conflict.
Management of these protected areas is vital in supporting wild lion populations. A recent report by Panthera showed that Africa’s protected parks and reserves are capable of supporting three to four times as many wild lions, if they are properly funded and managed. That is approx. 83,000 lions!!! To add to this there is still more than 1 million sq. km of viable lions habitat left in Africa, it is now a matter of sufficient funding and regulation.
Livestock production is one of the main sources of income for local communities, ranging from cattle to goats and chickens. Livestock has become relatively easy prey for lions especially during harsher times, mainly due to their increased presence in and around protected areas. Conflict occurs when lions attack livestock and herders retaliate by fatally shooting, spearing, or poisoning lions.
Although it is understandable as to why the farmers & herders want to kill as retribution for their dead animals, there are some major issues. The ‘guilty’ animal is often not the one that gets killed, or if poisoned bait is used this can also have a detrimental impact on other animals such as vultures, hyena and jackals.
In Northern Kenya lions are especially vulnerable to conflict because they live in or adjacent to areas inhabited by nomadic pastoralists and come into regular conflict with local people over this very issues. Ewaso Lions was founded in 2007, and works to study and incorporate local communities in helping to protect the lions in the Samburu National Reserve, Buffalo Springs National Reserve and Shaba National Reserve.
The Ewaso Lions team conducts research on human-carnivore conflict in these areas to develop strategies for preventing carnivore attacks on livestock, which will then reduce the retaliatory killings. These include ways to improve livestock husbandry by avoiding densely vegetated areas, using dogs to accompany grazing herds and not leaving livestock to graze unattended. The key point here is that the team works directly with livestock herders to promote these good husbandry practices to reduce this conflict, benefiting both them and the lions.
Other organisations are also promoting such strategies amongst others such as Lion-Proof Bomas, which are natural thorny enclosures where farmers keep their livestock at night – Walking For Lions, Wildlife ACT, Lion Guardians and Ruaha Carnivore Project. Please go and check them out they do amazing work!
It has been 2 years since the media finally caught up and aired the news that lions do get killed for trophy hunts in Africa. The allegedly illegal hunt of Cecil the lion caused worldwide outrage …. Now just last week his son – Xanda – has met the same fate, killed at just half the age of his father.
Commercial use of wild lion populations is a highly political and emotive topic but is largely allowed by governments as a venture to deliver capital. It has drawn great debate, especially in recent years, with very different arguments for & against it.
Trophy hunting of lions is currently practiced at a significant level in at least 12 African countries. Canned hunting is very different as this is where captive lions are bred to feed the demand for lion trophies, and is believed not to impact on the wild population status.
Many supporters say regulated hunts raise much-needed money for conservation and herald it as an important and necessary conservation tool. Researchers at Oxford University state that where it is well-regulated, transparent and devolves sufficient authority to the land managers, trophy hunting has the potential to contribute to lion conservation, but opposing this, many countries have weak governance and regulations which can lead to unsustainable practices.
The most fundamental benefit of trophy hunting to lion conservation is that it provides a financial incentive to maintain lion habitat that might otherwise be converted to agricultural land for example. It has been estimated that trophy hunting areas in Africa cover 1.4 million km2 – 22% more land than National Parks. How much of that area could viably be converted to phototourism is unknown, but it cannot be accomplished everywhere with some areas covered in very dense vegetation.
In most countries, male lions are only hunted, but females are still at threat in some. Both being targeted can be a significant threat to lion populations at a local level:
- Females make up the majority of a lion pride, the removal of adult lionesses reduces the pride size and therefore the survival of all cub age-classes.
- Loss of dominant males from a pride facilitates pride takeover by rival males and the killing (infanticide) of the previous male’s dependent cubs. There are other wider effects across protected areas – too scientific to go into now 😉
Lion trophy hunting is currently banned in six African lion range countries – Angola, Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Niger and Nigeria. This controversial topic and its consequences are vast but the knowledge gaps are huge. More research is being done and regulations being revised – In 2015 the African Lion was added to the U.S Endangered Species Act. However the priority now is to secure the last remaining 10 strongholds and safeguard all 60 remaining lion populations.
Poaching & The Wildlife Trade
There is a relatively new threat that has emerged for lions: the legal and illegal (acquired by poaching) trade in lion bones & body parts.
Lion parts such as whiskers, fat and tails have always had a traditional value and use in many African nations as medicines and components of ritual practices. That’s started to shift. Evidence suggests that there is a new demand for lion bones that comes from Asian countries. The parts are more often than not destined for use in traditional Asian medicines as a replacement for tiger parts, which have become harder to get now that tiger populations have plummeted to just a few thousand.
A report last year from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, found that 1,160 lion skeletons were legally exported from South Africa between 2008 and 2011. These are legal as they come from captive-lion breeding industry known as canned hunting. Breeders argue that they are taking the pressure off of wild animals, but as long as there is a demand, it is very easy to get wild bones smuggled into that trade. Also consumers are allegedly prepared to pay more for bones from wild lions because of the belief that the effects are more potent than those of captive animals.
Though after the 2016 CITES summit in Johannesburg, there is now a ban across 182 countries in the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions, there is still a purely illegal trade that exists with lion parts found hidden inside the export containers.
Disease & Climate Change
Lions are facing an indirect threat from climate change called co-infection. Lions periodically face outbreaks of the disease distemper. Outbreaks of this disease in 1994 and 2001 caused massive die-offs. Researchers found that the key environmental factor these epidemics was the occurrence of a severe drought.
One result of this drought was that both the lions’ prey, weakened with malnutrition, became heavily infested with ticks, which in turn infested the lions as they fed. The ticks, it turned out, carried a blood parasite that rendered them less able to cope with canine distemper virus, and the combination of the two diseases killed many more lions than either disease commonly would by itself. Droughts such as the ones that led to deadly co-infection in lions are predicted to become more common as the climate warms.
There is now more awareness than ever on the threats to wild lion populations. We have seen some progress for lions over recent years, in no small part inspired by the death of Cecil – and probably now his son, Xanda too – a mere silver lining.
The only thing to leave you with now after all that information is the following quote from one of my idols – Dereck Joubert (Filmmaker and Conservationist)
‘Unless something changes dramatically, we have 10-15 years to secure Africa’s Lions……A world without the distant roar of lions at dawn as the mists start to lift is too terrible to contemplate’
Cover photo from Torie Hilley.