Lions are urgent focus for Nat Geo’s Big Cats Initiative

Big cats are in trouble, from lions in Kenya to snow leopards in the Himalaya, the National Geographic Society said in a statement today. “The icons of the natural world–lions, cheetahs, leopards, jaguars and other top felines–are disappearing, victims of habitat loss and degradation as well as conflicts with humans.


NGS photo of African lion by Chris Johns

“Large cats are keystone species of their ecosystems; losing them means not only loss of a majestic predator but destruction of a natural balance that affects an entire environmental system, including people.”

To address this critical situation the National Geographic Society has launched the Big Cats Initiative, a comprehensive program that supports on-the-ground conservation projects, education and economic incentive efforts and a global public-awareness campaign.

The program’s first phase will target lions, whose populations are dying off rapidly across Africa, the news statement explained.


NGS photo of African lion by Chris Johns

“Lions once ranged across Africa and into Syria, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and northwest India; some 1.5 million lions roamed the earth two millennia ago. Since the 1940s, when lions numbered an estimated 450,000, lion populations have blinked out across the continent and now may total as few as 20,000 animals. Scientists connect the drastic decreases in lions in part to burgeoning human populations”.

The first goal of the Big Cats Initiative is to halt lion population declines by the year 2015 and to restore populations to sustainable levels by 2020.

The first goal of the Big Cats Initiative is to halt lion population declines by the year 2015 and to restore populations to sustainable levels by 2020.

As a first step, National Geographic will map all available data on lion populations, demographics and habitat. Using that information, National Geographic will launch a grant program that will fund a variety of conservation projects across the lions’ range. These include innovative projects focused on near-term results for saving lions, including anti-poaching programs and projects that test new techniques and technologies.


NGS photo of African lions by Michael Nichols

Proposals for education projects will be encouraged, especially those working directly with community stakeholders to help local populations understand the ecological and economic value of preserving lions and other big cats. Projects that establish economic incentives for local people to ensure long-term survival of lions will especially be a priority.

lion facts.png

“Emergency grants, such as the one made in 2008 by National Geographic to the Maasailand Preservation Trust in support of its Predator Compensation Fund, will be considered,” National Geographic said. “That fund compensates local Maasai herdsmen for livestock kills by lions in and around Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, where the lion population has declined drastically in recent years. Reports from the field indicate that lion deaths have dropped considerably in some areas since the project began.”

The Big Cats Initiative is made up of conservationists led by National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert. “Having lived and worked in some of Africa’s most remote areas for more than 25 years as authors and filmmakers, the Jouberts have embraced the cause of wildlife conservation, especially for big cats,” National Geographic said.

The Jouberts are active conservationists in Botswana, members of the IUCN-affiliated Lion Working Group and founding members of the Chobe Wildlife Trust and of Conservation International in Botswana. The Jouberts also work in ecotourism and on building community partnerships.

“We no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to big cats,” said Dereck Joubert. “They are in such a downward spiral that if we hesitate now, we will be responsible for extinctions across the globe. If there was ever a time to take action, it is now.”


NGS photo by W. Robert Moore

Conservation scientist Luke Dollar, a National Geographic explorer, is coordinating the Big Cats Initiative. “The BCI is the most ambitious, audacious conservation initiative I have ever encountered, much less been a part of,” Dollar said in an email. “The extraordinary thing is that the goal is not only a critical response to a global biodiversity emergency; by our current roadmap, it is logical, progressive, and achievable.”

National Geographic will collaborate with local and international NGOs, corporations, local community groups and individuals to work with saving lions and ensuring the future of this multiyear initiative.

For more information and how to apply for grants visit the Big Cats Initiative Web site.

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