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African Lions on the Brink: A Conversation with Lion Expert Craig Packer

One of Africa's last lionesses?
Is the sun setting for lions and other iconic wildlife species in Africa? This lioness is one of a fast-dwindling number of African lions. (Photograph: Craig Packer)

With roars that rend the African night, lions have captured our imaginations since the dawn of humankind.

“Lions have long been celebrated in art and literature throughout the world,” says ecologist Craig Packer, National Geographic Explorer and Expeditions Council grantee, and director of the University of Minnesota Lion Center. In the face of habitat loss and other risks, will lions still rule the savanna in ten, twenty, one hundred years?

After the now-famous lion Cecil’s death in July, 2015, progress was made in protecting African lions. The U.S. listed them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and airlines around the world refused to fly the spoils of lion trophy-hunting out of Africa.

Major recent conferences, including a National Geographic Society event on Trophy Hunting and Lion Conservation, brought together lion scientists and conservationists to discuss the next steps. For a look into the future, I talked with Packer, a renowned expert on African lions.

Scientist Craig Packer in the field with lions.
Into the wild: National Geographic Explorer Craig Packer conducts research on lions in Africa’s savannas. (Photograph: Craig Packer)

How many African lions are left – and how can we save them?

There are 20,000 to 30,000 African lions remaining. That broad estimate reflects the fact that lions are difficult to count and a large amount of lion habitat in Africa has never been surveyed.

It’s essential to scale up the tactics that successfully protect lion habitat and mitigate human-lion conflicts. Strategies have been formulated and tested; it’s a matter of meaningfully addressing large tracts of habitat for lions. Africa still holds about one million square kilometers [some 386,000 square miles] of lion habitat, so it will require billions of dollars of funding from the international community each year for the foreseeable future.

A summit meeting was held in memory of Cecil the lion.
What will the future hold for lions? To find answers, a summit was recently held in memory of Cecil, the lion killed in 2015 in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

In September a summit was held in Cecil’s memory – The Cecil Summit  – at Oxford University in the U.K. The meeting was sponsored by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and Panthera, an organization that works to conserve wild cat species around the world. What were the summit’s aims?

Among the main goals was finding a way to turn an online viral phenomenon – the death of Cecil – into a lasting conservation movement. The news cycle moved on within a few months, but lion numbers are still dwindling and the challenges continue to grow.

What was your personal hope for the summit?

To emphasize the financial role that major international agencies – those in the European Union, U.K. and U.S. governments, UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Bank – could play in protecting lion habitat, and for the participants to recognize the appropriate scale of funding.

Was there agreement among attendees about what needs to happen in the next year…five years…decade?

The next step will be to engage with lion range governments in Africa so they strengthen their commitment to lion conservation, and to encourage them to work with conservationists and international agencies to build a global platform for protecting their imperiled National Parks and Game Reserves. Hopefully, we’ll see meaningful financial commitments from the international community within the next five to ten years.

Lions are a global heritage.
Lions are a global heritage, says Packer, and should be protected as such. (Photograph: Craig Packer)

How will your collective recommendations be implemented?

We first need buy-in from the African range states [countries with lions] so they request assistance from the donor community. Two billion dollars a year may sound like a lot of money, but it’s not much in comparison with the global economy – especially if multiple donor countries work together with the 14 or so range states in Africa.

What are the main take-home messages from the summit?

Lion conservation is expensive. The price is far too high to be borne entirely by the poorest countries on Earth. Lions sometimes eat people and livestock; these devastating losses are suffered by impoverished rural communities. In the U.S., U.K. and European Union, national parks are funded by tax revenues. African parks are funded by visitor entrance fees or hunting fees. However, these revenues are far too small for wildlife to “pay its own way.”

Africa’s parks hold the most charismatic species on the planet – giraffe, elephant, hippo, zebra, lion, leopard and cheetah – a true global heritage. It’s up to all of us to help cover the costs of protecting these species. If the lion goes extinct, all these other species will go as well. We must all work together, but the scale of funding is beyond the scope of conservation groups. The financial requirements can only be met by world governments.

We need to move faster to save lions and their habitat.
To save Africa’s lions, we need to move quickly to protect their remaining habitat, biologists urge. (Photograph: Schuyler Shepherd, Wikimedia Commons)

At this month’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting, CITES members rejected a proposal to list the African lion under Appendix I, which would have offered the most protection. The move would have kept lions safe from commercial trade in their parts.

Instead a compromise agreement was reached that bans trade only in wild lion parts. It leaves open the sale of parts from captive-bred lions, such as those in South Africa. There some 7,000 lions are kept for “canned hunts” (trophy hunts in which the animals are in confined areas, increasing the likelihood of kills) and for the trade in purported medicinal lion bones. How will this decision affect the future for lions?

It remains to be seen. For the past decade, the canned lion industry has fully met the demand for lion bones, but I’ve started hearing reports that wild lions are being killed for their bones in Mozambique. If the legal trade provides cover for the illegal trade in wild lions, the situation could get worse quickly.

How does your research contribute to helping lions?

My research team now works in South Africa, where wild lions suffer minimal conflict with pastoralists and local people. South African parks are fully fenced, so the habitat is well-protected. The main challenge is that lions sometimes drive down prey numbers in the smaller parks. So we’re studying ways to improve ecological stability in these highly managed reserves.

For those hoping to see lions outside of zoos, where are the best locations?

The famous parks in Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – such as the Okavango in Botswana, Masai Mara in Kenya and Kruger in South Africa – still have reasonably healthy lion populations, and these animals are easy to view from a vehicle!

Will coming generations have the chance to see lions in the wild…to hear their roars in the night?

The good news, again, is that there are still more than one million square kilometers of viable lion habitat in Africa. If the world steps in with sufficient funding, there might be twice as many lions in 2036 as there are today. But if we don’t, we will likely see a continued decline. The human population of Africa may triple by the end of this century, crowding out lions and all the other wildlife species, so we need to move fast.

Will lions someday fade into the night?
How long will lions’ roars rend the African night? The answer, in large part, is up to us. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

Comments

  1. Hilary J.
    United Kingdom
    November 7, 12:26 pm

    The construction of SGR on Nairobi National Park is spelling doom to its lions leave alone the rest of ecosystem. Those are interested in stealing the land are in cahoot with amateur scientist producing fake EIA report to support this construction that will cut the park into two limiting the movement of animals. Please debunk EIA report.

  2. Clive C
    United Kingdom
    November 3, 6:22 am

    South Africa’s enclosed parks and private reserves provide a lifeline but hopefully not the only solution. The Lion populations at these managed locations are relatively stable.. But the scope for significantly expanding populations by relying on these reserves is limited. This will only occur by acquiring and converting more land for conservation management.

    The challenge with enclosed eco-systems is to maintain balance between preditors ( especially within Lion prides )and the provision of prey species. And this balance cannot be maintained without intervention and wildlife management .

    Every enclosed wildlife has a carrying capacity for each species, determined by size of the enclosed area, and the natural vegetation and availability and access to water.. Excess numbers of herbivores will result in overgrazing:which denudes and transforms the habitat .An excess of predators will result in conflict and death within the territory as will the occurrence of there being too many mature males..

    The sustainable utilisation wildlife management model, as operated in Southern Africa, has one critical advantage which facilitates conservation. It generates revenues. Wildlife is deemed to be owned by the landowner. You can trade livestock, breed and manage the population of species on land that you own..This has driven the expansion of wild life reserves and wild game farming. But sadly it has led to the establishment of Lion farming businesses, a thriving trade in Lion trophies and skeletons It also legitimises the Canned and Trophy Hunting businesses

    Species which many regard as wild species have become a commodity ~ if it pays it stays. Farming and trading produces revenues which help sustain wild life conservation in Southern African Countries. Not so in other African countries where wildlife species are rapidly being wiped out by poaching and habitat loss. . Here wildlife is still deemed to be owned by the state . Wildlife services are under resourced and underfunded.

    It is perhaps ironic that for endangered species such as Lion and Elephant , many South African reserve managers are having to limit breeding by employing contraceptive techniques or resorting to sterilisation in order to manage that balance between species.

    It is the boundary fences, which are spreading more and more across Africa, that protect wildlife and habitats within the fencing, which also prevent these animals from moving away to find and establish new territories These wild life reserves are effectively islands surrounded by land which is managed for other purposes which are not always sympathetic to the occurrence of some free roaming species .
    COP17 brought to public attention the great divide that exists within Africa between Countries which seek to control trade and accept that wildlife can be farmed sustainably,. and those countries which abhor such practice and continue to press for trade prohibitions and worldwide demand reductions. Most NGO’s and certainly public opinion, favour the reinforcement of trade prohibitions. But sadly no solution seems to be being put forward in regard to funding either conservation or protection of wildlife and habitat.

    Without a significant and sustained funding commitment from the developed world economies, the decline of Africa’s wildlife seems bound to continue.

  3. Melanie
    United States
    October 29, 3:52 pm

    Once we lose genetic diversity of lions and other wild animals, we have lost the battle to save them. It is time ti act now.

  4. Adelia Hitt
    Rivetside Mo
    October 18, 11:16 pm

    The lion is the majesty of the wild kingdom. He should be treasured and protected not hunted or as a trophy. The lions beauty should be enjoyed today and in future generations. We need to work together to preserve the dignity of the lion and all the other creatures in the ecosystem and thus preserve this world for future generations.

  5. Tina Dobson
    Spartanburg, SC
    October 17, 11:54 pm

    I am against all forms of killing of lions and I used to focus only on raising awareness to anyone who would listen about the so called trophy/sport hunting in hopes it could be stopped as if it was the only threat to lions. To me the conserv in conservation means to save, for later. And I will always feel this way. But I learned of the other multitude of problems that threaten the continued existence of the wild lion. I am convinced our attention should shift at this time in history to what really needs to materialize in order to save this iconic species. The whole world should contribute to this cause as that’s likely what its going to take in monetary form. We can’t expect someone else will do it because there is only us,, the human species to do this right.

  6. Craig Packer
    United States
    October 17, 5:48 pm

    African sport hunting needs serious reform, as hunting blocks in many countries are allocated to political insiders who pay minimal fees to local wildlife authorities. Thus, sport hunting generates far too little income to pay the true costs of wildlife conservation. For example, Cecil the lion was shot for only `$50,000 when it cost closer to $1 million to protect Cecil until he was old enough to be “harvested.” And only a few thousand dollars from Cecil’s hunting fees actually went back to conservation.
    The US Government has recently raised its standards for whether lion trophies can be legally imported from Africa. Unless a range state like Zimbabwe or Tanzania can prove that lion hunting actually improves lion conservation, imports into the US will be banned by USFWS.
    This new policy largely arose in the aftermath of the public uproar about Cecil. If American citizens continue to speak up, USFWS will be more likely to stringently enforce its new policies.

  7. Sandra
    United States
    October 17, 2:39 pm

    IT’S SAD WITH ALL THE INFORMATION WE HAVE RIGHT IN FRONT OF US, MANY CHOOSE TO LOOK THE OTHER WAY. SOME OF THEM BELIEVE THAT SOME ONE ELSE WILL TAKE CARE OF IT.

    THIS IS A VERY BUMPY UPHILL BATTLE THAT ONLY A FEW ARE WILLING TO CLIMB. AMONG POACHERS AND HABITAT LOSS, TROPHY HUNTING REALLY NEEDS TO BE LOOKED AT UNDER A MICROSCOPE. KILLING FOR CONSERVATION DOES’NT GO RIGHT WITH ME. THESE HUNTERS HAVE FOR YEARS, THE ULTIMATE EXCUSES AND IF THAT DOESN’T WORK THEY GO DOWN TO A VERY LONG LIST TRYING TO CONVINCE US IT IS NECESSARY FOR THE FUTURE FOR THESE ANIMALS.. AND THE ECONOMY..

    THIS COUNTRY “USA” NEEDS TO STAND UP AND JUST SAY “NO”.THESE HUNTERS DON’T HUNT FOR THE SURVIVAL OF THESE SPECIES, NOR DO THEY CARE ABOUT FUNDS TRICKLING DOWN TO POOR LOCALS..

    IF YOU LOOK AT ZIMBABWE, YEARS AND YEARS OF TROPHY HUNTING, THESE PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE BY NOW BE FINANCIALLY SET. INSTEAD, THEY REMAIN DESTITUTE AND LIVING ASIDE DANGEROUS WILDLIFE

    THESE HUNTER’S ARE AFTER ONE THING AND ONLY ONE THING…THEIR “TROPHY” AS LONG AS THE U.S. ALLOWS AMERICANS TO TRAVEL TO THESE COUNTRIES TO HUNT, THE NUMBERS WILL CONTINUE TO PLUMMET

    JUST RECENTLY A TEXAN MAN SHOT AND KILLED ONE OF OUR MOST ENDANGERED ANIMALS ON THE PLANET…’BLACK RHINO”.. HE WON A PERMIT FOR $350,000 TO KILL A BLACK RHINO IN AFRICA AND WHEN HE ARRIVED IN AFRICA AND KILLED THE ANIMAL 3 DAYS LATER. HE ALSO CLAIMED THAT IT WAS ALL FOR SAVING THE BLACK RHINOS. TWO BLACK RHINOS DIED THAT DAY. AFTER ALL SAID AND DONE, HE WANTED TO SHIP HIS VICTIM HOME AND ONE AIRLINE SAID NO SO HE DECIDED TO SUE THE AIRLINE AND LOST. UNFORTUNATELY, THE FIST AND WILDLIFE SERVICES, WHO RECENTLY SAID “NO TROPHIES SOMETIME AFTER JANUARY, WHAT REALLY CONFUSING ME IS THAT, HE WANTED TO TAKE THE SAME THING A POACHER WOULD TAKE…THE HEAD AND HORNS..

    KENYA HAS BAN TROPHY HUNTING SINCE THE 1970’S AND TO THIS DAY ARE DOING O.K. I HAVE AN FRIEND IN KENYA AND THEY TEST OTHER WAYS TO FIGHT OFF POACHERS WHICH THEY ARE BEGINNING TO USE DRONES. RIGHT NOW THEY ARE SHIPPING WATER BY THE TRUCK LOADS FOR THE ANIMALS. THE U.S NEEDS TO STAND UP TO THESE TROPHY HUNTERS AND MAKE IT STICK IF THEY DON’T, THEY ARE THE ONES TO BLAME.