WILD LION CONSERVATION
World Lion Day is a day to raise awareness of the real issues facing one of nature’s most majestic predators. Learn more about wild lions in Africa, the conservation challenges they face, and how Wild Tomorrow Fund is helping.
Wild Tomorrow Fund ecologist, Clinton Wright, spent five years at Tembe Elephant Park monitoring wild lions (and wild dogs), learning to understand each individual and the big picture issues for wild lion management in fenced reserves. Wild Tomorrow Fund is a member of the Lion Management Forum of South Africa.
The lion (Panthera leo) has been disappearing from the wild at a rapid rate. In the last 21 years, equivalent to just three lion generations, their population has plummeted by an estimated 43%. Today, lions are extinct in 26 African countries with less than an estimated 30,000 lions remaining. In short - they are in serious trouble across the African continent.
But a closer look at the numbers reveals two very different stories. Lion numbers in India and southern Africa (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) have grown by around 12% while the rest of the world’s population has declined by an estimated 60% in its remaining African range.
The growth of wild lion populations in southern Africa is also a number needing deeper examination. Anyone who is familiar with domestic cats knows they breed quickly! Lions are no different. Each lioness gives birth to a litter of one to five cubs every two years. As a result, fenced reserves in southern Africa need to limit or control the birth rates of their wild lion populations. If left uncontrolled, this 12% rate of increase would be much higher, putting pressure on the reserves, the ecosystem and increasing the risk of a lion 'breaking out' and coming into conflict with communities living next door. Wild lions living within the finite spaces of southern Africa's reserves would be able to recover their populations at a much higher rater if they had more space.
"I worked in a lion reserve with managed wild lions for many years." explains Wild Tomorrow Fund's Senior ecologist, Clinton Wright. "Lions there were introduced in the early 2000’s. Despite having an estimated carrying capacity of 25, and despite contraception and strategically moving as many lions to other reserves as possible, these numbers were constantly pushing close to 50. No matter how the birth rate was controlled and or how many lions were moved off the reserve, the population keeps growing or the gaps were filled by new births within a few months."
This is not a unique story and almost every single lion reserve in South Africa is facing the same issues. This is confounded by dwindling government support, shoe-string budgets, and resources being drained by the rhino poaching epidemic. "It is a constant struggle for small reserves in South Africa to keep lion numbers down – and managers cannot even give lions away for free. There is simply no space for them anymore.", says Clinton. "This is a similar story for elephants, giraffe and even the endangered African wild dog. We have gotten to a point where we have to contracept or use partial-hysterectomies to control numbers downwards."
Why can't more lions be moved from South Africa to regions that are losing lions?
Moving lions to new areas or countries isn't as simple as it sounds. Lion genetics differ across countries and local lion populations have adapted to their unique climate and habitats. "Firstly, we are still understanding the genetics of lions. When we start moving lions across countries and continents and start mixing genetic lines, we are messing with factors like disease resistance and adaptability to their environment.", explains Clinton. "It would also be unethical to move lions to an area where they are likely to come into conflict, for example with poachers or where they lack the prey species they need for food. It is already stressful for the lions to travel to a foreign area with foreign habitat, but to then drop them into an area where they are likely to die would be a tragedy. It is important that this decision is not taken lightly."
There is however a glimmer of hope on the horizon. There have been several recent translocation success stories of lions, elephants, rhinos and other large animals to areas that previously were not suitable or safe for lions and other threatened species. These parks are now being adequately protected and restored, enabling them to become a new home for wildlife desperately seeking space. In 2015, Wild Tomorrow Fund ecologists Clinton Wright and Axel Hunnicutt were a part of the project that saw a total of seven wild lions relocated from South Africa to Rwanda's Akagera National Park, restoring wild lions there for the first time in over 15 years. Their numbers doubled in a single year and together with newly introduced rhinos, are a major draw for international tourism. This month, the start of the biggest wild lion move in history began, with 24 lions being moved to the Zambeze Delta in Central Mozambique. Lions were locally extinct in this area after the turmoil of civil war and associated poaching. Large scale translocations are an incredible conservation achievement requiring a large amount of coordination, funding and international support.
Additionally, groups such as the African Lion Working Group and the Lion Management Forum of South Africa are linking lion conservationists and lion reserves, sharing knowledge and helping to better manage wild lion populations.
Why are wild lion numbers increasing in southern Africa but declining elsewhere?
Southern African 'fortress conservation' is very different from the rest of Africa. This means that wildlife reserves are enclosed by electrified fencing; a legal requirement for reserves that have animals which pose a risk to humans. Thus, the natural migration or movement of wildlife is limited by the fenced boundaries. As a result, there are many small reserves that need careful and scientifically-driven management actions to simulate natural events.
Small fortress reserves in South Africa are carefully managed and balanced. They are often surrounded by communities or homesteads. And they almost all derive running costs from tourism activities. Because of this, the reserves have to be carefully managed – water supplies maintained, prey bases supplemented when needed, excess wildlife removed to prevent excessive impact on vegetation, and disease controlled. Lion prides are often managed as units. There is very little fighting or infanticide. This leads to high survival rates for cubs which generally achieve adulthood. In a larger, more natural system, disease, drought, prey base depletion, intense inter-pride competition and infanticide by other lions or predators lead to lower survival rates and a more balanced output. So when this delicate balance is interrupted through poaching for lion parts, prey base depletion due to illegal hunting, habitat destruction and human-lion conflict, the extra pressures tip the balance towards negative birth rates and declining numbers, as seen outside Southern Africa.
Reserves in other parts of Africa are generally open systems, with minimal (demarcation only) or no fencing. Wildlife moves and migrates between areas. People still live in these spaces and co-exist and come into conflict with wildlife. Both open and fortress systems have their benefits and drawbacks. However, as human population continues to grow, South Africa can be seen as a test lab for conservation. It is possible that as people start to expand into wildlife areas in other parts of Africa, and human-wildlife conflict increases, that other African countries will also fence their outer boundaries.
Trophy hunting and lion conservation
A lot of emotion and good intent goes into the fight against lion trophy hunting. The killing of Cecil the Lion by the dentist, Walter Palmer unleashed an international storm of anger and awareness for lions as targets of trophy hunting. Unfortunately, this furor did almost nothing to slow the precipitous decline of lion populations. That is because trophy hunting is not the main issue. In West and Central Africa, bush meat hinting by locals is the major issue. In southern Africa, it is habitat loss and lack of space that prevents lion numbers from increasing.
A report, titled "Life after Cecil", by a team of Panthera scientists, published the year Cecil was killed speaks to a bigger picture issue: "With or without trophy hunting, Africa's wildlife areas require much more funding to prevent serious biodiversity loss". Clinton echoes this with his thoughts, "I wonder if the energy and funding pumped into fighting this cause would have been better spent on lion issues that more directly impact lion populations and numbers. My personal view is to simplify everything and concentrate on educating communities who live by the reserves, and make every effort to save habitat for wildlife. Those who feel a tighter connection to humanitarian causes can help support the poor and marginalized people through schools and clinics, that will also then support conservation. For those who feel a closer connection to animals, your donation can be used for habitat protection, which includes saving land and supporting the rangers who protect it.
Solutions for lion recovery in southern Africa
Securing and linking habitat for wildlife is a roadmap for not only creating more space for lions, but all other species. We believe that the most important action in conservation today is the creation of wildlife corridors to link as many of the small fragmented reserves together as possible (many are in close proximity to each other), while ensuring existing reserves are well protected.
"If we can expand existing areas to achieve or get close to a total 1000km2 size, lions (and other animals) largely begin to self-manage. Land is a sensitive issue in Africa, but it can be done in ways that benefit local communities, secure areas for wildlife, and decrease the management loads and costs in managing small reserves." says Clinton.
Please help direct your passion for lion protection into strategies and projects that will make a difference. Consider taking an eco-safari at a responsibly managed wildlife reserve in Africa. Donate to organizations that support rangers and habitat conservation. Help to fund translocation projects. Together we can ensure lions have a future. An African savannah without the roar of lions is one we cannot bear to imagine.
To support lion protection, please consider making a donation here.
Bauer, H., Packer, C., Funston, P.F., Henschel, P. & Nowell, K. 2016. Panthera leo (errata version published in 2017). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15951A115130419. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T15951A107265605.en.
Conniff, Richard. "Angry Tweets Won't Help African Lions." New York Times, New York 1 July 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/opinion/sunday/angry-tweets-wont-help-african-lions.html
Lindsey, Peter A., Balme, Guy B.A., Funston, P.J., Henschel, P.H., and Hunter, L. 2015. Life after Cecil: channelling global outrage into funding for conservation in Africa. Conservation Letters Volume 9, Issue 4. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12224