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Refocusing on the Facts for World Lion Day #worldlionday

It’s another hot humid day in Zululand, South Africa and the steel cable bolted to the truck I’m sitting in the back of snaps taught. The truck’s tires slid a bit in the sandy dirt. On the end of that cable are five hungry lions clawing at the piece of meat we’ve tied to it. As they grip into the bait with their teeth, we quickly learn that the cable is a bit shorter than anticipated and I am a bit closer than I want to be to this pride of peckish lions.

Before I have too much time to consider my predicament, the second truck carrying our veterinarian flanks the distracted lions and, with pinpoint marksmanship and a quick draw, each one soon has a dart in its rump. It won’t be long now until they are fast asleep and on a 3,000-kilometer journey to the country of Rwanda. These will be the first lions in Rwanda in over two decades.

Last year World Lion Day was dominated by anti-trophy hunting dialogue after the recent death of the 13-year-old Zimbabwean national park lion, Cecil. For conservationists on the ground in Africa, the immediate worldwide outcry of support for lions was inspiring, a glimmer of hope for widespread awareness and potential funding for protected areas.

I advocate for this World Lion Day to refocus on the real threats facing lions today.

The focus on trophy hunting overshadowed the actual causes of lion population declines. I advocate for this World Lion Day to refocus on the real threats facing lions today.

Today there are as few as 20,000 wild lions left in in the world (including the single population of Asiatic lions in India), compared to the half a million in the 1940s. This dramatic and continued decline in lion numbers is not a result of circumstances such as Cecil’s. While humans are the greatest threat to lion population success, that threat is not from foreigners with hunting rifles, but rather from the communities living alongside wildlife as neighbors.

Two Threats

The two main threats that lions currently face are conflict with humans (retaliatory or preemptive killing) and loss of habitat and prey. Both of these are related one way or another to Africa’s ongoing population boom. Now with 1.2 billion people, the continent of Africa is the fastest growing human population on Earth, and is on track to double again by 2050. A large portion of this growth is occurring in West and  Central Africa, where in 20 years Nigeria will have the third largest human population in the world with over 400 million people. With this many people comes an increase in human-wildlife conflict, making it no surprise that lions were placed on the U.S. endangered species list at the end of last year.

With the expansion of West and  Central Africa’s human population into previously “wild” areas, people and wildlife are living in closer proximity. They are eating “bushmeat”, the same prey animals that lions use (West, Central, and East Africa have seen an 85 percent decrease in wild prey animals), they are extracting resources and creating agriculture — transforming and degrading lion habitat (lions now occupy less than 8 percent of their historic range) they bring their livestock with them. These three factors create the perfect storm for lion-human conflict.

In countries like Kenya, the average herder loses U.S. $209 annually from cattle taken by predators such as lions. For people living near national parks in the central African country of Cameroon, this accounts for at least 20 percent of their financial losses. Persecution of lions is thus rampant, as the cats are perceived as having a negative economic value for people. They are shot, poisoned, and snared, either in retaliation for property loss or for the prevention of it. Lion persecution alone accounts for 5 percent of the population decline in Kenya.

Southern Africa continues to stand in dichotomy with the rest of Africa. Lion populations in the countries of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have actually increased by 12 percent in recent years, while in the rest of Africa lion numbers have declined by 60 percent.

There are two major causes for this difference: low densities of people and fences.

Less People = Less Conflict

Across vast areas of southern Africa human density is low compared with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Less people means less conflict.

The second factor is a result of different wildlife management practices. Many protected areas in southern Africa and most in South Africa are entirely fenced. There is a clear line between wildlife and people; in most of the parks I work in you can see lions and other wildlife virtually next to human communities, separated only by a fence. There is no interaction with the predators other than for ecotourism, and thus there is no conflict or cause for persecution.

Ring-fencing our wildlife does come at a considerable cost, both economically and management-wise. As most parks in South Africa are considerably smaller in size than their northern counterparts, the need for intensive management increases. 100,000 ha (247,105 acres) is known as the “golden number”, or the size where natural processes can occur without management intervention. As most of our protected areas in southern Africa are not this large, we are constantly struggling to contain our lion populations.

Lions breed like rabbits in small- to medium-size parks, for a number of reasons. Put simply, the life for a lion is relatively relaxed in these smaller parks and so they reproduce quickly, with most cubs surviving; populations can become exponentially larger within months. This means that while the rest of the continent struggles to keep its lion populations viable, we are constantly working on how to reduce our populations and growth rates. Efforts include translocations of individuals, swapping males to mimic natural processes, and even contraception programs. In South Africa, we struggle even to donate lions to the different parks, as we all face the same issue of having too many of the big cats.

Relocation of Lions from South to North

Most readers would by now be wondering if we should move lions from the south to the north to help repopulate an endangered species in the rest of Africa. While most geneticists cringe at this idea of mixing subspecies, in my opinion it’s too late to split hairs over genetic purity. However, this doesn’t remove the logistical mayhem of moving lions between countries and finding the funding to do so.

In June of 2015, I was lucky enough to be a part of a team that donated lions from two parks in South Africa to Akagera National Park in Rwanda. Although we translocate many lions within South Africa, this operation felt particularly meaningful. More than two decades after lions were extirpated from the central African country, the lions I’ve watched grow up would become the pioneers in repopulating Rwanda, the most densely human-populated African country. Last month Africa National Parks reported a litter of lion cubs was born in this new pride, the first to be born in the country in this millennium. Initiatives like this show that international translocations and partnerships can be forged for the sake of conservation and that the dichotomy can be mutually beneficial.

Five donated lionesses with the conservation team at Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa. Photo credit: Simon Naylor
Five donated lionesses with the conservation team at Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa. Photo credit: Simon Naylor

To me World Lion Day is about recognizing that even the most iconic, beloved charismatic species, the one we call “king”, is becoming more endangered each year and cannot be saved by our emotions and sentiments alone. The threats that lions face today are far more complex and profound than a dentist with a bow and arrow.

We need to work towards innovative solutions to ensure the safety and survival of both local human communities and the lions who coexist with them. If we cannot properly protect one of the world’s most iconic species, what chance do the rest of them have?

Axel Hunnicutt HeadshotAxel Hunnicutt has collaborated on ecological research across South Africa, with an interest in the population ecology of socially misunderstood species. He has earned his masters in Wildlife Management at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Wildlife Management, focusing on spotted hyena population dynamics. Based in Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa, he coordinates scientific research in Zululand for Wild Tomorrow Fund.

Wild Tomorrow Fund is a 501(c)3 registered wildlife conservation charity, based in New York and KwaZulu-Natal (“Zululand”) South Africa. Wild Tomorrow Fund provides compassionate people around the world a way to fight back against the poaching of elephants, rhinos, lions and other species to the point of extinction. Funds donated are used to purchase and hand-deliver supplies and equipment desperately needed by anti-poaching units, ecologists and reserve managers: from notepads to GPS lion collars, camera traps for research and monitoring, to night vision goggles and other items requested by the reserves and conservation managers. Wild Tomorrow Fund employs dedicated ecologists who manage conservation programs and conduct scientific research at wildlife reserves across Southern Africa.

#worldlionday