CONSERVING THE AFRICAN LIONS
Article and Images by Christina Bush
The lion is the national animal of Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, England, Ethiopia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Singapore. They are the second largest living feline species behind the tiger and throughout history they appear as a symbol of power, courage and nobility on family crests, coats of arms and national flags in many civilizations. They have long been killed in rituals of bravery, as hunting trophies and for their “assumed” medicinal and magical powers. In just about every major city in the world you will find statues of lions. Lions sit majestically, with a foot up on a ball, or snarling like menacing beasts. Humans have feared and admired their nobility and strength for thousands of years.
According to Defenders of Wildlife, wild African Lions are at risk of extinction by the year 2020 unless drastic measures are taken to save them. These majestic big cats once roamed most of Africa and parts of Europe and Asia. Today they are only found in parts of the sub-Saharan Africa, except for one very small population of Asian lions that survives in India’s Gir Forest. The lion population in Africa has been reduced by half since the early 1950s and today fewer than 21,000 remain in all of Africa. A species population reduction of approximately 90%, is suspected over the past two decades.
The most urgent threat to lions today is the widespread use of pesticides and poison by ranchers in retaliation for the depredation on livestock. As each year passes, an increasing number of lions die as they are forced to make room for Africa’s growth in both human and livestock populations. In Botswana alone, over 100 lions are killed each year in an attempt to protect livestock.
A poison known as Furadan, a substance developed by an American company as a crop pesticide, is used by those who wish to bring harm to the lions. This poison is so toxic that it has been banned in both the United States and the European Union, but it is widely available in East Africa. Just a quarter teaspoon of the substance will kill a lion (or a human) in just minutes. A handful sprinkled on an animal carcass can wipe out an entire pride of lions that feed on it. Hyenas, jackals and vultures that come in afterward are also at risk of this so-called “dirty bomb”.
African lions are in danger of disappearing altogether due to diseases that are having disastrous effects on the few large lion populations left in that region. The Serengeti lions were extremely hard-hit in 1997, resulting in the loss of one-third of the resident lion population. It Botswana, 90% of the free-roaming lions studied by the Okavango Lion Conservation Project are infected with FIV, the feline equivalent of human HIV, which can be deadly in a lion population that is under stress. The Kruger population in South Africa has suffered from a serious outbreak of bovine tuberculosis. A key environmental factor in the epidemic loss of this species has been from severe droughts. One result of a drought is that the lion’s prey, weakened with malnutrition, becomes heavily invested with ticks that in turn infest the lions as they feed. Ticks carry a blood parasite that renders them less able to recover from canine distemper virus and can lead to the death of the host.
Approximately 1,500 lions are killed each year in South Africa alone as part of trophy hunts that not only deplete the population of the African lion but threatens its gene pool as well. Killing the dominant male of a pride, normally the target of a trophy hunt, sets off a chain reaction of instinctive behaviors in which the subsequent dominant male kills all the offspring of the previous dominant male lion. It is estimated that 6-8 feline deaths result from each dominant male that is shot. Given the urgent need for revenue among Asians, Europeans, and Westerners, predators are increasingly hunted for sport, even as their numbers are in significant decline in their ranges.
The United States is the largest importer of lion trophies, parts and products. Annually, an average of about 500 lion trophies or skins enter the country from hunts in Africa. According to a recent study by Animal Planet, there are an estimated 2,000 trophy hunting/canned hunting facilities across the United States. There is really no exact count because this trade is not regulated. The king of the jungle is rapidly headed toward extinction, and yet Americans continue to kill these spectacular creatures for sport. This has become a serious problem across the nation and it is legal (in some form) in 28 states.
The United States is also the leading importer of lions and lion parts for commercial and recreational trade - this includes hides, skulls, claws, bones and live lions. The bones and blood of lions and tigers have long been used in ancient Chinese medicines and wines, though there is no proven evidence that they have any type of medicinal qualities. With the number of tigers in critical decline, lions have become a larger target for these practices.
Lions are becoming more economically viable as a tourist attraction, bringing revenue to the countries in their range. Conservation groups are using the rising tourism and photo safari experiences to allocate a percentage of the proceeds to the ranchers as an incentive to let lions continue to roam and flourish again. They are also working diligently to develop strategies such as lion-proof “bomas”, which are natural thorny enclosures where ranchers keep their livestock at night to prevent deaths, reduce or eliminate the need to kill lions because of livestock depredation.
Local lion guardians help their communities reduce conflict with lions by informing livestock herders to avoid areas where carnivores are present, improving bomas to protect the animals at night, helping herders to find lost livestock left out in the bush, educating communities about carnivore conservation, and preventing further lion killing by deterring other warriors from carrying out lion hunts. To ensure the continuation and preservation of this species a few lion sperm banks have also been established.
Because of the drastic recent declines in lion populations, it’s important to study and protect lions across the continent. Lions vary greatly in behavior, social structure, and dynamics across locations, making it necessary to observe and survey them in all habitats where they’re found. As we learn more about lion behavior, biology, and ecology, we can better understand the mechanisms affecting them and use this information to establish sound conservation strategies for their protection.