Urgent Action Needed to Save African Lions
By Ed Stoddard
JOHANNESBURG — The “King of the Beasts” may not rule beyond this century unless urgent action is taken to protect remaining lion habitat and halt conflict between humans and the big cats, a leading conservationist said on Monday.
“Lions have lost 80 percent of their historic range in the last century and we don’t want the next century to be a repeat,” said Kristin Nowell, a member of the cat specialist group of the World Conservation Union, the world’s largest network of conservation groups.
She was in Johannesburg for a six-day workshop devoted to strategies for lion conservation in southern and east Africa which began on Sunday. It follows a similar workshop in Cameroon in October on lions in west and central Africa.
Lions are considered to be threatened everywhere in Africa but are at particular risk in its densely populated west.
Nowell said one of the key challenges was getting an accurate take on lion numbers and distribution.
“We are refining our knowledge of the status and distribution of the African lion and trying to identify the most important areas for lion conservation,” she said.
Nowell said there were believed to be 34 lion range states in Africa and while exact numbers were patchy there was little doubt that the predator was doing far better in the east and south of the continent than elsewhere.
“The estimates are that there are between 23,000 to 40,000 lions in Africa. Of that, only 2,000 to 4,000 are in west and central Africa and the rest in are east and southern Africa.”
“Lions are found everywhere except for the desert and the rainforest but we have big concerns about the populations in west and central Africa,” she said.
Nowell said in that region, most of the lion populations were small and isolated, which raised concerns about the size of the gene pool. Small numbers also meant that the populations were vulnerable to disease outbreaks and other sudden stresses.
Much of west Africa has dense human populations and the bulk of the lion habitat there has been turned into farmland.
She said a priority was to improve the state of the lion’s prey base. “If there is nothing for them to eat they turn to livestock and people too occasionally … One of our objectives is to come up with strategies to reduce lion/human conflict.”
Nowell said one avenue being pursued was to transplant successful lion trophy hunting programs in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa to other countries.
“As long as trophy hunting is done sustainably and doesn’t affect the viability of the lion population then there is quite a lot of support for it among range states,” she said. “It helps to raise money for conservation and gives local people an incentive to have lions living in their neighborhood.”
Outside of Africa the only wild lion population is confined to the Gir forest in India.