As a child growing up in Australia, other than iconic Australian wildlife like Koalas, Kangaroos and Wombats, a constant presence in films, books, magazines and on TV shows were large African animals, such as Elephants, Rhinos and Lions. Lions especially had a great impression on me and many of my generation due to the efforts of naturalist, artist and author, Joy Adamson and her husband George to save and return Elisa and other orphaned Lions to the wild.
This interest in African Lions grew particularly after the publication of Joy’s bestselling book, Born Free in 1960, then the later books Living Free and Forever Free. These were followed by two films Born Free and Living Free in 1966 and 1969 and a later a documentary, The Lions Are Free. Lions were an exciting reality we saw, read and talked about often and their existence on the African savannah intensely stirred our youthful imaginations. These striking African wild cats had an unforgettable aura about them, which has stayed with me from childhood to adult life. Now for my own children’s generation African Lions are also a primary part of many nature documentaries and other wildlife shows they watch, as well as the books and publications they read.
For many years I’ve been very aware of the sad situation of the Rhinos, Elephants and other endangered species, through reading and what I’ve seen on TV documentaries. And I have signed many petitions, written letters and donated money to various wildlife organisations that are trying to halt the threats to these rare animals. I guess, like many people I’m repeatedly hearing and reading the distressing news regarding the reduction in numbers of these precious species of wildlife. And Rhinos and Elephants and other African animals are fixed in our collective consciousness due to the publicity about pouching, hunting and other things that threaten their survival.
Unfortunately, these well-known large animals aren’t the only species at risk in the world today, many others, some less known and some very familiar wildlife are now also in danger of extinction. It came as a great shock to me recently to read for instance that African Lions, the largest of the big cats are drastically declining across Africa. Not many people are aware that there are now fewer wild African Lions remaining in the world than, Rhinos, Elephants, Polar Bears and Orang-utans. The magnificent Lion has joined other famed African species on the list of threatened animals, with a series of reports raising very grave concerns about the fate of these large cats. They are now listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with the Lions of West and Central Africa classified as endangered.
The African Lion population has been rapidly shrinking throughout the continent. In 1950 there were over 400,000 Lions living across Africa. By the early 1980s the population had fallen quite dramatically to approximately 200,000 Lions. Even in the early 1990s it was estimated there were still about 100,000 Lions in Africa. Now it is estimated there are, unfortunately, only around 30,000 left on the whole continent. The African Lion population has declined at an alarming rate, plummeting in just the past few decades alone, with their population decreasing by more than 50% and they have also disappeared from over 80% of their historical range. I was born in 1952, so this means that in my lifetime the African Lion population has fallen by more than 90%.
While there is some dispute as to the numbers of Lions left in the wild, all the wildlife conservation groups agree that the African Lion is now seriously threatened. The most recent surveys (2012) estimated that the number of African Lions is fewer than 30,000 today. One report said there were about 25,000 remaining. While some other optimistic surveys have estimated that around 32,000 Lions could remain in the wild. But a recent report by the conservation organisation LionAid says the figure could be considerably lower, with only about 15,000 to 16,000 left roaming the wilds of Africa. And these approximately 15,000 to 30,000 Lions are spread over a very wide geographic area of the African continent. So that many of these Lion populations are existing in precariously restricted ranges, in small, scattered and fragmented pockets of bushland.
The most substantial and viable Lion populations now survive in eastern and southern Africa. Of their former range, they are already extinct in some 26 countries and virtually extinct in 10 other countries. Lions are still found in 28 countries, but only seven of these countries are believed to have populations of more than a thousand. These seven countries are Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Even in these countries the situation of Lions is not secure. In Kenya for instance, there are estimated to be about 2,000 Lions left, but each year Kenya losses over 100 Lions due to killings by poachers, farmers and herders.
The situation is most serious in western Africa where Lions are already on the verge of extinction due to the drastic decline in numbers. Some surveys have estimated the number of Lions that survive in West Africa is about 850-1,160. But according to LionAid estimates only some 645 to 795 Lions remain in the region, in isolated pockets of remnant habitat. These remaining Lion populations are mostly geographically cut off from each other and have a high likelihood of inbreeding. But, even if the higher estimate of numbers were correct, with such few Lions remaining, their small population makes their continued existence unsustainable. Similarly, Lion numbers throughout central Africa are also small and these populations are likely to be extinct in a few years.
The most significant threats to the survival of the species are considered to be, habitat loss and fragmentation of habitat, conflicts with humans, such as retaliatory attacks by farmers, trophy hunting and the scarcity of prey. With human growth relentlessly expanding and engulfing Lion habitat for agriculture, livestock and urban development, the African Lion is fast running out of room. Added to this, while Lions eat a variety of prey, from large animals such as Antelope and Giraffes to smaller animals like, hares and birds, numbers of several of their main prey, Antelope and Zebra have also fallen dramatically due to overhunting by humans. This creates further conflict as Lions then feed on livestock.
With the loss of habitat and prey, the Lion-human conflicts have increased and the result is that more Lions are then being shot or speared and killed as pests to protect livestock. In parts of east Africa some farmers and herders poison dead livestock to kill Lions. A pesticide known as Furadan (which is banned in the EU, Canada and US) is sprinkled over lion-killed livestock. When the Lion pride or other predators return to feed, they ingest the poison and die an agonizing death.
And despite the considerable decline in numbers Lions face other threats from humans: they are still being hunted as sport for trophies and for taxidermy. The USA is the world’s largest importer of Lion parts for both commercial and recreational business, selling skulls, hides, claws and even living Lions as pets. Big game hunters who pay to shoot Lions claim that in doing so they are aiding conservation efforts. But this is not a valid argument in relation to Lions. African Lion experts say that by Lion killing the mature males, hunting radically upsets the balance within the pride and often results in fights that end in the deaths of many other Lions. Because when a principal male lion dies, new challengers struggle to dominate the pride. When a new male Lion takes over he will kill any resisting females and all the cubs. So, the shooting of one male can result in the deaths of dozens of other Lions. As well, the Humane Society International says that despite claims that big game hunting injects cash into the local communities’ economy and that some of it is being used for wildlife conservation efforts, this is not really proven to be the case. According to their research, only very meagre amounts of money actually get to the impoverished communities. In reality by local African communities can gain more financial benefit through tourism by preserving Lions and other wildlife.
Finally, there's another threat emerging, the Lion bone trade, with Lions being killed for their bones for traditional Chinese medicine. As happens with Tigers, some bone traders are now starting to target Lions.
If serious conservation measures are not taken soon, in a couple decades the African Lion population will be down to just a few thousand animals in small areas, struggling to survive. Much more must be done and soon to ensure the continued existence of Africans Lions. They are now in grave risk of extinction unless proper conservation measures are quickly implemented. So what can be done to save the African Lion?
In order to conserve the African Lion, firstly the killings of Lions by humans, whether due to hunting for sport or livestock conflicts must be halted. More needs to be done in working with local communities to lessen Lion/human conflict, compensate for livestock killed and better protect both livestock and people. There is also an urgent need to protect Lion habitat, to stop it being converted into farmland. And also to conserve the Lions sources of food, in particular their main prey species such as Gazelle, other Antelopes and Zebra.
As well, the conservation group LionAid has put forward several positive measures to help save the Lion, including appealing for more accurate Lion counts to be conducted, called on other African countries to join Botswana, Kenya and Zambia in halting Lion trophy hunting, asked importing countries to ban Lion trophies and pleaded for Lion range states to declare Lions a national protected species and to urgently enact proper conservation programs.
For various reasons African Lions are very difficult to count. But from the best attainable survey’s we do know that 30 or so years ago there were approximately 200,000 Lions in Africa and the population is now at most around 30,000. And that this is a very low number of Lions and they are sparsely spread throughout their current range. So, the situation for the African Lion is already dire. If the present situation is not remedied, then African Lions will continue to be reduced to ever smaller patches of scattered habitat, with their prey base depleting, their numbers dwindling and genetic diversity diminishing further. And if this drastic decline continues within 20 years over half the present population will be lost and African Lions will be teetering on the brink of extinction in the wild.
Lions are a vital part of the natural environment and a key species in the biodiversity of African ecosystems, but they are also a very important piece of the history, culture and heritage of Africa and its people. Their loss would have a devastating impact on the fragile ecology of the African savannah. It would be a deplorable tragedy if in the near future this potent symbol of the African bush was wiped out, surviving only in nature parks and zoos. It is also distressing that the condition of the African Lion has become so precarious almost without the world noticing.
Real steps must be taken to properly protect Lions from disappearing in their natural habitat, so that they will continue to survive and thrive in Africa. It would be utterly unforgivable if humanity were to let the African Lion perish from their native environment. We still have a very good chance to reverse the situation; we need more people to stand up for the preservation of Lions and stop this alarming trend towards extinction. People who are concerned about this dismal state of affairs can best express their unease by taking action while there is time to help. To make a difference we have to urgently support the worthy efforts of the Lion conservation groups striving to save these threatened big cats from vanishing. Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen to this truly magnificent creature. It’s ultimately up to us to make certain to it that the unique African Lion will be able to go on living, forever free and wild on the grassy plains of Africa.
For more information and to assist Lions please contact:LionAid, lionaid.org/
Lion Conservation Fund, lionconservationfund.org/