It’s World Lion Day! While this international observance may not be as popular as other holidays (we’re looking at you, New Year’s Eve), we think it’s a fantastic time to appreciate these roaring felines and to educate ourselves on the challenges the African lion population faces.
Lion Population Facts & Figures
These cats may seem perfectly at ease – padding across the savannah with their toe-beans (giant, enormous, toe-beans) and flicking manes, but lions are in desperate need of conservation efforts as a result of gross human misconduct.
|Fewer than 20 000 lions remain|
|Their population has been reduced by 95% in the last 100 years, while 50% of the population has been reduced in just the last 20 years|
|They are officially classified as a vulnerable species, while many call for this classification to be upgraded due to the rate at which they are being decimated|
|They have lost 92% of their natural habitat|
Source: Lion ALERT
Threats to Africa’s Lion Population
These stats may be news to you, or you may be fighting on the front line of lion conservation. Either way, its clear that more challenges are faced than the term “vulnerable” necessarily suggests.
WWF states that habitat loss is the biggest threat to species globally. These habitats are lost as they are “harvested for human consumption” (we’re talking farms, roads, houses, pipelines and others). These areas are not lost to the benefit of locals (many of whom rely on the proliferation of local species), but for the benefit of big business. Lions have been pushed out of their natural habitat in the last 100 years. They now occupy less than 92% of the land they once did. In layman’s terms, Simba’s kingdom is longer defined by everything the light touches. This loss of habitat has severe consequences. It means that lions have less access to the stretches of territories they need to function as a pride, robust prey populations, and viable mating partners.
The increased fracturing and reduction of populations has resulted in a severe lack of genetic diversity. This has resulted in levels of inbreeding that make it even harder for lions to survive in the world we’ve thrust them into. They have also been pushed into a position of conflict with humans. Without prey and territory, lions kill the livestock many communities rely on for survival. These communities respond in the interests of their loved ones by killing lions. The loss of habitat has, in other words, been devastating to these gorgeous lions.
Some of us may go to great lengths to shoot these beauties on our cameras (safari, anyone?) but some people out there value lions for all the wrong reasons. These creatures are vulnerable to poaching. Lion bones are used for ‘medicinal’ purposes, often as a replacement for tiger bones now that tigers have been hunted to near extinction. Over exploitation is defined by WWF as the second biggest threat to all species, and lions are no exception.
The illegal trade of wildlife is the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world. These organized crime syndicates are responsible for illegal activity and violence that people fall victim to as well as the animals they aim to procure and sell. They target the vulnerable communities surrounding protected areas and threaten locals to kill lions, or face putting their families in danger. The fact that this trade is illegal means it cannot be regulated to prevent over exploitation. This criminal oligarchy endangers lions and communities.
Many suggest that the tourism industry has failed dismally in protecting lions and providing for locals, and this is often the case in terms of lion conservation. Giving hunters permission to hunt lions, in theory, has the bonus of creating revenue that can benefit local communities while contributing to conservation efforts. However, this is often not the case. On average, communities have been shown to receive perhaps a dollar or three every year from legalized lion hunts, while hunting operators receives over a hundred per hunt.
Moreover, the practice means that few members of each community receive employment, which itself has measly returns and brief contracts. This is compounded by the fact that local people are prohibited from occupying land they have occupied for hundreds (or thousands) of years by many foreign-owned game reserves where they put, once again, into situations of human-wildlife conflict. Despite the lack of evidence suggesting that the legal trade helps conservation efforts, the South African government has upped the number of lion carcasses that can be exported to 150. Legal trophy hunting was supposed to curb poaching, but it does not seem to be doing this very effectively.
Lion populations have been irreparably affected by disease in the last few years. Morbillivirus erupted in the Serengeti lion population and killed around 30% of the population (according to some estimates). Bovine tuberculosis has also devastated the lion population in South Africa. The estimates claim that up to 80% of the remaining population could be lost by 2030. Lion populations also face more insidious threats – the spread of feline herpesvirus (FeHV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) has devastated huge populations due to the low pathogeny of these diseases. Many lions are already infected, and with such a small remaining population, they may not recover.
Our earth is heating up faster than it ever has in the past 10,000 years. This is partially due to human activities, and it means that climates and habitats are all in shift. This means that the survival of many species depends on their ability to adjust to these changing ecosystems. They may need to migrate to new sites, but in the case of lions this would be very difficult. This is because of the severe habitat loss this species has already seen. Simply put, they have nowhere left to go. It is predicted that climate change will result in less diverse, weed-like wildlife surviving. If climate change continues to progress as it has due to human activities, lions will go extinct, and soon.
Act now to save the lion population
If lions were facing just one of these threats, their odds would be a lot higher. Unfortunately, they are facing each and every one of them. Moreover, human activity can be seen as the root aggravator (if not cause) for every factor. This means that now is the only time we have to act and save them. We don’t know about you, but we don’t think lions should be confined to Disney films and natural history museums.
If you are passionate about the issue of lion conservation, learn more about volunteering for a period of 2 weeks to 3 months on one of our lion conservation programs in Southern Africa.