The lion population is dying out
Saturday December 8,2012
By Julie Carpenter
THERE’S a reason why the lion is considered one of Africa’s most iconic animals.
There was something spine-tingling about being able to view this majestic male, coolly unperturbed by our presence, wending his way through the undergrowth to proudly take up a prime position on an open plain to survey his kingdom.
Even the way he walked seemed to indicate power, strength and authority.
So it might come as a surprise to learn that lions now need our help – badly. A study released this week has revealed that lion populations have dropped by a staggering two-thirds over the past half century.
They live in big, prominent prides and reach good numbers when they’re living in protected areas
There may now be as few as 30,000 left worldwide and this, the report suggests, is largely because their natural habitat especially in West Africa has shrunk dramatically as booming human populations have taken it over.
According to scientists at Duke University in the US about three-quarters of Africa’s savannah grasslands – the lion’s historic home – has disappeared over the past 50 years, broken up into farms or engulfed in development.
“Lion populations in West and Central Africa are acutely threatened,” says the study.
“Only immediate, energetic conservation measures can offer any hope for their survival.”
It is no exaggeration to say that lion populations are dying out across the continent.
Since 2002 lions have become extinct in five countries. They currently exist in 28 African countries and one Asian country (India) but it’s believed that only seven of them have at least 1,000 lions left – Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“I hope this paper will be a real eye opener,” says Dr Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, a leading wild cat conservation organisation that contributed to the report.
“For a long time now lions have been off the conservation radar. Part of the reason is that they’re very visible, whether you see them on Animal Planet or National Geographic or in the game parks of Southern and East Africa.
“They live in big, prominent prides and reach good numbers when they’re living in protected areas. As a result they can suffer from this misconception that they don’t warrant protection but they do. In recent years their decline has been accelerating to catastrophic levels.”
Just under a century ago it was thought that there were as many as 200,000 lions living in the wild in Africa. The drop to the current figure of 30,000 is marked. If you go back further the difference is even more dramatic.
“Around 200 years ago before European colonisation lions existed almost everywhere in Africa except for the Sahara, the Congo and the rainforest basin,” says Hunter.
“There literally would have been millions.
“The issue now is that Africa has the fastest growing population of any continent and a very significant majority live in African savannah habitat. As human populations and their livestock increase that puts enormous pressure
on lions because they are competing for the same resources.”
As their habitat is converted for human use lions are coming into increasingly closer contact with man which can fuel intense “conflict situations” where lions are speared, shot or even poisoned by herders and farmers who perceive them as a threat to their livelihood.
In Kenya, for instance, around 100 of the country’s 2,000 lions are being killed every year. If the trend continues this means there will be no more wild lions in Kenya by 2030.
“Lions can of course be difficult to live with,” says Hunter.
“They will kill livestock in certain circumstances.”
Those circumstances increase if the lion’s own prey such as the different species of antelope is overhunted by
humans, which again happens as a result of human population increases.
What to do about the issue is the key question.
“Broadly there are two answers,” says Hunter.
“The core of any conservation strategy is having good game reserves and national parks. Africa still does have enormous areas of wilderness.
The Kruger National Park in South Africa, for example, is the size of Israel and a huge amount of Tanzania is still
wild with spectacularly large protected areas.”
The second perhaps more complicated answer is trying to improve the ways that man and lions can coexist.
“This is key,” says Hunter.
“Just because people and their livestock live in traditional lion habitat doesn’t mean the lion populations there have to completely disappear. In some cases they will but in others it can be prevented. People in pastoral areas of Africa
have lived with lions for centuries and they worked out ways to coexist and I don’t mean that in some harmonious hand-in-hand in the sunset way. It was never that.
“Humans and lions have always killed one another in very low instances but neither species wants to get to that point. Traditional herding societies in Africa did a pretty good job of mostly avoiding it.”
ONE project instigated by Panthera is the Lion Guardians Programme which focuses on traditional pastoral
communities. “Take the Masai tribe whose entire culture and economy is based on cattle and who are also famous for hunting lions.
Traditional hunts were never really a problem because they were very infrequent but because human-lion conflict has increased so has the killing of lions.
It’s no longer to do with tradition – they just don’t want lions around because they kill cattle. The Lion Guardian programme works by changing the lion hunters into Lion Guardians.
“We employ the Lion Guardians essentially to resurrect what they’ve always done which is to be good protectors of their livestock and avoid the reasons that you have problems with lions in the first place. If lions can’t get to
cattle there are fewer confl icts. It’s essentially about good husbandry.”
Other issues also affecting lion numbers include the poaching of bush meat (which reduces lion’s prey) and trophy hunting.
“The other is the killing of lions for use in the Asian traditional medicine trade,” says Hunter.
“This has been an issue for rhinos and tigers for a long time but just about every part of the lion has so-called use in this context, which has absolutely no scientific basis whatsoever. It’s an increasing threat.”
As to what might happen to lion numbers if no conservation action is taken, Hunter says: “It means we’ll be looking at the lion in a couple of decades in the same way we’re forced to look at the tiger now. There will be increasingly smaller and isolated populations.
“The more that trend continues the more likely it is those populations will become extinct. That’s what we want to avoid.”