Celebrated in sculpture and art since antiquity, there are few wild animals that inspire quite such fear and awe as the mighty African lion.
Driven to extinction in Europe several centuries ago, their faded majesty lives on in pub names such as The Red Lion or history book accounts of monarchs such as Richard the Lionheart. But who in Africa, the stage for countless National Geographic documentaries and the Hollywood blockbuster The Lion King, could imagine their future being in peril?
The truth is that Africa is no longer a wildlife Disneyland. In the days of writer Ernest Hemingway, when hunters and “sportsmen” thought little of shooting as many wild animals as they could, there were thought to be as many as 400 000 lions in Africa.
More recent estimates suggest that the wild lion population has declined to somewhere between 20 000 and 37 000, although the figure of 20 000 is seen as the most accurate estimate on the latest IUCN Red List of Threatened Species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
If correct, this means that there are now more rhinos left in the world than wild lions. Put another way, people now outnumber lions by 385 000 to one.
Delegates attending the 18th conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in Geneva, Switzerland, from 17 to 28 August were scheduled to be presented with a series of reports about the conservation status and future of lions.
One of these reports says lions are now restricted to just 12% of their historic range. “Within a few strongholds, lions are not threatened with imminent extinction; some populations, especially in southern Africa, are likely to persist for decades. However, rapid declines in numbers and range indicate that lions may disappear from many parts of Africa.”
Lion researchers Andrew Loveridge of Oxford University and Lisanne Petracca from the Panthera group in New York say “threats to Africa’s natural environment and biodiversity have never been more severe. Africa’s human population is growing at an unprecedented rate, the current population predicted to have almost trebled by 2060, from 1.1 billion to over 2.8 billion people.”
This burgeoning population would exacerbate the conversion of wildlands to farming, with one study predicting that to feed Africa’s population in 2060, roughly 430 million hectares of wild habitat would have been cleared for food production, an area of land almost four times the size of South Africa.
“This is likely to have dire consequences for the amount of wild habitat available for conservation of natural ecosystems. Furthermore, heavy investment in infrastructure geared towards industrial resource extraction, such as China’s international Belt and Road Initiative, may well exacerbate environmental degradation.”
Loveridge and Petracca say that “whilst there is a moral imperative to develop Africa’s economies for the benefit of Africans and alleviation of poverty, if the continent’s unique fauna, flora and ecosystems are to survive, conservationists and African governments need to plan for zonation of development and prioritisation and preservation of critical habitats”.
Lions would require particular attention because they are often involved in conflict with people, and because their survival depends on extensive space and large populations of prey animals such as zebra or gazelle.
Against this backdrop, African lion populations have become increasingly fragmented in the past 50 years. This process of fragmentation is highly likely to accelerate, with lion range increasingly reduced to small habitat pockets that restrict long-term gene flow.
While Africa’s wildlife park network protects around 56% of the remaining lion range, most of these protected areas remain chronically underfunded.
A study conducted in 2003 showed that to maintain adequate levels of genetic diversity and to avoid inbreeding, lion populations should consist of at least 50 large prides.
“In reality, only a handful of large stronghold populations are likely to fulfil this theoretical criterion and some populations are by implication likely to already be suffering from some degree of inbreeding,” the researchers say.
Ideally, the most desirable solution would be to enable lions to disperse their genes across their existing range, but this was not always feasible and lions that were fenced in were more likely to survive.
“This has occasionally been a controversial view and it is self-evident that fencing is not always an appropriate intervention”, particularly in ecosystems with migratory antelope species. Fencing is also expensive to install and maintain and, if not adequately managed and repaired, fences become ineffective.
Loveridge and Petracca suggest that a change of attitude and motivation towards lion-human conflict will also be needed.
“Lions are dangerous predators that threaten human lives and cause significant economic damage when they kill domestic stock. If people are to tolerate lions and other large predators, measures to mitigate these threats need to be put in place as part of landscape-level conservation.”
A separate section of the report – compiled by carnivore researchers Hans Bauer, Samantha Page-Nicholson, Amy Hinks and Amy Dickman – says the reduction in lion range and numbers has a number of root causes, including human population growth and poverty.
An expanding human population led to more settlement in former lion habitats, increasing conflict and the persecution of lions through poisoning, trapping and shooting.
Bauer says the emptying of the African savannahs for the bushmeat trade has been one of the greatest contributors to the declining status of lions as their food sources dwindle. In Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park, for example, the number of wild ungulates (hoofed animals) was reported to be 83% below ecological carrying capacity.
In Kenya, studies by Joseph Ogutu suggest that wild ungulate herds had decreased by nearly 68% between 1977 and 2016, while sheep and goat herds increased by 76%, resulting in livestock outnumbering wild ungulates by eight times.
As these threats to lions increase, Cites member states will be asked to consider a number of proposals in Geneva. They include plans to develop a new inventory of African lion populations and new strategies to reinforce international co-operation on the management of lions.
There have also been calls for new studies on the legal and illegal trade in lions, including lion bones, following the recent massive growth in South African exports of captive-bred lion trophies.
Nigeria and Togo also proposed a resolution calling for a review on the trade in lion parts and called for a “highly precautionary approach” to guard against captive-bred lions becoming a stimulus and cover for illegal trade in wild lion specimens.
Overall, researchers have painted a bleak picture, noting that only a handful of countries still protect more than 1 000 lions each.
A recent report by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University lists these nations as Tanzania (8 176 wild lions), Botswana (2 774), South Africa (2 070), Kenya (1 825) Zimbabwe (1 710) and Zambia (1 095).
Researcher Hans Bauer says there have been some recent positive trends, such as the discovery of a relatively large lion population on the border between Sudan and Ethiopia, and the translocation of new prides from South Africa to restock other parts of the continent.
However, he concludes that rapid declines in their numbers and range indicate that lions will disappear from most of Africa and that these predators will increasingly be framed as conservation dependent and no longer thought of exclusively as the epitome of wilderness.