The last roar of Africa's lions

Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Friday, 04 March 2016

“Until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story.” – Ewe-mina proverb

Lion hunters often tell tales of their superior hunting skills, but their success is sometimes pure luck. A lion may have been sleeping or injured when a hunter found it, giving the latter an unfair advantage.

The Ewe-mina, an ethnic group in Benin, Ghana and Togo, caution that a hunter’s account is never complete until both sides are heard – and that the one without a voice is often the loser.

According to the Ewe-mina, the lion in Africa is that loser, and needs to have its story told.

His Royal Highness ©Panthera

His Royal Highness ©Panthera

The living dead

Red spots drip across a map of West and Central Africa: the known range of lions in countries from the Congo to Senegal. “By known, we mean areas where it is ‘certain’ that lions exist; certain being that there are data points [sightings] within the last 10 years,” says biologist Philipp Henschel, coordinator of Panthera’s West and Central Africa Lion Programme. Panthera, an organisation headquartered in New York, works to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific research and global conservation.

On the map, as lion lifeblood drains, red spills into pink: lions’ ‘possible’ range. These are areas where lions were historically present and where conditions are still favourable thanks to healthy habitat, enough prey, and low numbers of humans. “Where,” says Henschel, “lions have a chance.”

Scientists call these tiny populations of lions the living dead, as extinction is all but inevitable. “Although the status of the African lion everywhere is concerning,” says Henschel, “the situation is particularly alarming in West and Central Africa. There may be no lions left in Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.”

In other West and Central African countries, lion populations have almost bled out. One swipe of a paw – disease, poaching, or habitat loss – could be the end.


Map provided by Panthera

Going, going… gone?

In 2011, Henschel and scientists from the Office Ivoirien des Parcs et Reserves and the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation conducted a survey of Côte d’Ivoire’s 10,000km² Comoe National Park. The news wasn’t good. The last time anyone spotted a lion there was in 2004.

Other likely West African areas with no lions left include Mole National Park in Ghana and Haut-Niger National Park in Guinea.

Henschel performed another African lion census in 2015, this time in south-eastern Angola. After searching across 1,222 kilometres, he and other researchers found just 10 spoor records. The biologists are planning a follow-up study in May 2016.

©Christian Sperka

Now’s not the time for napping if we want to save lions ©Christian Sperka

©Christian Sperka

The race is on for lions ©Christian Sperka


porini-maasai-mara-and-nairobiWhile lion numbers are dropping sharply in West and Central Africa, they’re also plummeting in East Africa. Lion populations in the three regions are likely to suffer a 50% decline within the next few decades, according to findings published late last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Estimating future population trends requires sophisticated forecasting techniques, and we performed one of the most comprehensive analyses of conservation status over such a large scale,” says ecologist Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the PNAS report.

The scientists found that almost all African lion populations are bottoming out, including those in East Africa, “which has long been considered the stronghold of the species,” Packer says.

“The lion plays a pivotal role as Africa’s top carnivore,” adds Luke Hunter, president of Panthera and also a PNAS co-author. “The freefall of lions we’re seeing today could completely change Africa’s ecosystems.” In West Africa, for example, he notes that a loss of the big cats is linked with population explosions of olive baboons. High numbers of the omnivorous baboons have led to declines in small ungulates and an increase in raids of farmers’ crops.

“Throughout history, humans have tried to exterminate large carnivores, and failed miserably in predicting the ecological consequences,” says Hunter. “There will be more such effects if we don’t heed the signals.”

Face-off between a lion and two rhinos ©Christian Sperka

Face-off between a lion and two rhinos ©Christian Sperka

©Christian Sperka

A lion cub needs attention ©Christian Sperka

Biologists (left to right) Joel Ziwa, Mustapha Nsubuga and Luke Hunter place a location transmitting collar on a lioness in Kigezi Wildlife Reserve, Uganda ©Panthera

Biologists (left to right) Joel Ziwa, Mustapha Nsubuga and Luke Hunter place a location transmitting collar on a lioness in Kigezi Wildlife Reserve, Uganda ©Panthera


wildfrontiers-great-migration-specialSoon wild Southern African populations may be all that’s left of freely roaming lions. Scientists predict that the region could replace the savanna landscapes of East Africa as the most successful area for lion conservation.

“The picture painted in the movie Out of Africa is history,” says ecologist Hans Bauer of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), lead author of the PNAS paper.

“The notion of ‘virgin wilderness’ in Africa is now a myth,” Bauer says. “The fact is that people are everywhere, including increasingly inside protected areas.” Roads, villages and towns, as well as agricultural fields, are closing in on lions’ habitat.

From the perspective of a lion, says Bauer, “humans were once insignificant prey and competitors. That was more than 10,000 years ago. Then we became widely but sparsely distributed concentration points of food [cattle], and also of danger [spears]. Now humans are simply bad news.

“There appears to be a breaking point for lions at human densities of 25 people per square kilometre. Very few lions persist beyond that.”

Conservation biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University and chair of the organisation Saving Species, adds that “Africa’s savannas once covered more than 13 million square kilometers, an area larger than the continental U.S. Now the expanding human population means that only a quarter of that area supports populations of other large mammals.”

Researchers believe that, in one way or another, we’re crowding out lions on all sides. A century from now, lions may exist only in zoos or wildlife areas small enough to become quasi-zoos, says ecologist Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

The end of the day for a lioness ©Craig Packer

The end of the day for a lioness ©Craig Packer

Threatened and endangered

With the many threats lions face, scientists have called for a regional lion uplisting on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species – from Vulnerable to Endangered in Central and East Africa (the lion is already classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered in West Africa). On a positive note, however, biologists suggest that lion populations in Southern Africa meet the IUCN criteria for Least Concern.

In response to the almost across-the-board decline of Africa’s lions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced on 21 December 2015 that it will list two lion subspecies under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Panthera leo leo in India and in West and Central Africa will be listed as Endangered, with Panthera leo melanochaita in East and Southern Africa listed as Threatened.

USFWS biologists determined that there are only 1,400 lions remaining in the subspecies Panthera leo leo – 900 in West and Central Africa, and 523 in India’s Gir Forest. Panthera leo melanochaita likely numbers between 17,000 and 19,000 across East and Southern Africa.

Imports into the U.S. of any Panthera leo leo or its parts will be prohibited unless it’s found that they would enhance the survival of the species, a high hurdle to jump.

In the case of Panthera leo melanochaita, the USFWS is establishing a permit system that will regulate the import of all lion parts and products, including live animals and sport-hunted trophies.

The U.S. policy follows those of other countries. In November 2015, France banned the import of lion heads, paws and skins as hunters’ trophies. The action followed a similar regulation implemented in Australia in March 2015.

©Janine Avery

A worthy paw ©Janine Avery

©Christian Sperka

A sunset camouflage ©Christian Sperka

Refuge for lions?

IMG_8809The PNAS analysis, which included 47 African lion populations, shows that although lion numbers in West, Central and East Africa are collapsing, increases are happening in four Southern African countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“These results clearly indicate that the decline of lions can be halted, and indeed reversed, as has occurred in Southern Africa,” says Bauer, who believes that conservation efforts there are successful because the region has fewer people, significant financial resources, and lions living mostly in intensively managed reserves.

Protected areas like Kruger National Park in South Africa are an example. “The South African side of the park is lined with private conservancies that are fenced on their outer perimeters,” Packer says. “So there is no habitat loss to subsistence farmers, no illegal cattle-grazing, and no human-lion conflict.”

There’s other good news for Kruger’s 1,600 or so lions. Packer and colleagues discovered that although the lions sometimes contract bovine tuberculosis (bTB) from eating infected African buffalo, the disease hasn’t affected lion numbers.

Bovine tuberculosis was likely introduced to the park around 1960, when buffalo were exposed via bTB-infected domestic cattle. Over the decades since, there have been reports of significant bTB risks to Kruger’s lions.

“We set out to see if this was the calm before the storm – or if the disease wasn’t a major threat,” says Packer. “The results suggest that bTB isn’t nearly as damaging to the Kruger lion population as had been feared.”

The disease is worse during times of drought, however, and Kruger is currently suffering from a severe drought linked with this year’s El Niño. Buffalo are stressed by the limited growth of grasses for food, making them easier prey. Lionesses kill four times as many buffalo during droughts, increasing their risk of bTB exposure.

However, the scientists’ model indicates that “the lions will be fine – unless this drought is unlike all previous droughts and extends on and on,” says Packer.

Scientist Sam Ferreira of SANParks agrees. “At least in Kruger, the persistence of lions is not threatened. However, these dynamics could change in different climatic conditions and with additional stressors such as the presence of other diseases.”

With the current El Niño dubbed ‘Godzilla’, the finale is still on the horizon.

A leap of faith for a lion ©Christian Sperka

A leap of faith for lions ©Christian Sperka


Taking care of their kind ©Panthera

There’s hope yet

In more hope for lions, scientists have recently discovered lions in a remote national park in Ethiopia. With support from Born Free USA and the Born Free Foundation, Bauer led an expedition in November 2015 to Alatash National Park in northwest Ethiopia. Along with a team of biologists, he obtained camera trap images of lions and lion tracks, and concluded that lions are also likely to exist in the adjacent Dinder National Park in neighboring Sudan.

“Considering the relative ease with which lion signs were observed,” says Bauer, “it’s likely that lions are present throughout Alatash and Dinder. Due to limited surface water, however, prey densities are low and lion densities are also likely to be low.” Bauer believes that there may be only one or two lions per 100 square kilometres, or a population of 100-200 lions, throughout the entire Alatash-Dinder ecosystem.

“The next step is to communicate with the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan about the needs for conservation so this previously undiscovered lion stronghold can be protected,” says Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and the Born Free Foundation.

A fierce determination ©Christian Sperka

A fierce determination ©Christian Sperka

Need for action

“Lions need immediate action across most of Africa,” says Packer. What’s crucial, he says, “is a more geographically-sensitive approach to lion conservation status. Don’t lump South Africa and Namibia with Nigeria and Tanzania.”

Pointing to lion poisonings in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, Packer says that “conflict with pastoralists is a major problem in most of the lion’s remaining range. Cattle are magnets for lions,” often leading to revenge when lions kill livestock.

“Two lion cubs recently died when their pride was poisoned inside the Buffalo Springs National Reserve [in Kenya] by herders who retaliated after the lions attacked their livestock,” says Paul Thomson, managing director of the Ewaso Lions Project. “This is not an isolated incident.”

Cross-cultural lion researchers ©Axel Gomille

Cross-cultural lion researchers ©Axel Gomille

Collaring a lion as part of the Kafue Lion Project ©Chap Masterson

Collaring a lion as part of the Kafue Lion Project ©Chap Masterson


Researchers agree that finding ways for local communities to co-exist with lions is key to ensuring lions’ survival in Kenya and across Africa.

One such effort is the Lion Guardians programme in Kenya and Tanzania. Maasai warriors turned Lion Guardians use their tracking skills to protect lions rather than harming them, while saving their neighbours from confrontations with lions. Lion Guardians reinforce more than 300 homesteads each year against lion attacks on livestock; closely monitor problem lions and mitigate potential conflicts; and ultimately help communities avoid potential losses of more than US$2 million in lost livestock.

Whether in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, or other African countries, researchers are clear that reliable data on lion population numbers are badly needed. Some nations report numbers that aren’t scientifically peer-reviewed, biologists say. Holding countries accountable for accurate estimates would help pinpoint where lions are most in trouble, and what the problems are.

The King and I

The past and future of the kings of the savanna is less about Panthera leo than about Homo sapiens.

“Weak management of lions’ habitat due to a lack of funds has led to a collapse in lion prey – and in lions,” asserts Henschel, a PNAS co-author. One West African park’s management budget, for example, “is roughly US$20 per square kilometre, which is incredibly low,” he says.

©Christian Sperka

Raising the future kings ©Christian Sperka

©Christian Sperka

A lioness tackles her prey ©Christian Sperka


To reverse the declines and stabilise populations of lions and their prey, Henschel believes that lion conservation needs a huge increase in financial backing for protected areas.

“Lions are too valuable to take for granted”

“If the world really wants to conserve iconic wildlife for the next 1,000 years,” writes Packer in an op-ed published in the L.A. Times, “we need a latter-day Marshall Plan that integrates the true costs of park management into the economic priorities of international development agencies. Lions are too valuable to take for granted.”

Forests and savannas across Africa are growing quieter with each passing year, their lions’ roars becoming fainter. As the Ewe-mina warned, the only voices we soon may hear are our own.


About the author

cheryl-lyn-dybasEcologist and science journalist Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, fell in love with Africa and its savannas at first sight. She lives in the U.S., outside of Washington, D.C., and also writes on Africa and other subjects for National Geographic, BioScience, Natural History, National Wildlife, Scientific American, Oceanography, The Washington Post, and many other publications. She is a featured speaker on conservation biology and science journalism at universities, museums and other institutions. Eye-to-eye with the wild is her favourite place to be.

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  • Excellent article! Thank you!

  • Gail Mckay

    I wonder what impact might ensue with a decline in the top predator numbers…could there be a resultant increase in the grazers which compete with domestic animals? I suppose there is no country immune to the extermination of native species to allow for man’s subsistence…..I think of the plight of wolves against cattle ranchers in North America. We seem intent on dominance regardless of long term consequence.

  • Michael Creaghan

    I went to Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe on a five week photo safari in April 2015 and in all that time, I saw -one- wild male lion. And that was an injured, sick sub adult. Five weeks. One sick lion, and that was it. I avoided Kruger because I have heard that it is rather crowded there with tourists…..seems though that it’s the only place left in Africa where a lion sighting is highly likely….maybe that and Ngorongoro. African countries should take note of the draw that Kruger holds on tourists for it is my belief that without lions….without ALOT of lions, the tourists will simply stop coming.

    • Mike D

      5 weeks and one sick lion. That is incredibly sad

    • Argyle

      Absolute garbage coming from a guy who has no conservation knowledge whatsoever. I’ve been to those same countries this past year and seen roughly 32 of them. They’re elusive creatures, too. They’re not just going to come out for a photo shoot. You’re not guaranteed a sighting when you go on safari, nor is the fact that you didn’t see many indicative of population status in the parks you went to. Also, why are you with that lion in the photo? That’s a frowned on practice. Those lions go toward canned hunting Mr. Creaghan. I’ve seen your diatribe online before. Stick to what you know best sir…not much.

      • Michael Creaghan

        Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back and if you can’t discuss a subject with civility and without insults then keep your damn mouth shut. The lions in the photo are from ALERT and no, they are not going to get shot. I’m reporting the facts of my experience in those areas in regard to lion sightings. How you can take offense to that is beyond me.

      • Schroederville

        Am I missing something? I do not see any photos of anyone with a lion, nor did I see where Michael Creaghan mentions walking with lions.

        • Michael Creaghan

          See my post in this discussion about walking with lions. In most cases cub walks and cub petting feed the trophy industry. Some don’t and some have value. It’s funny this “Argyle” fellow brings it up, as he is a trophy hunter himself.

    • tim

      mr. creaghan i would advise you not to walk with lions…please see this article

      • Michael Creaghan

        Thank you for pointing out that article. I am aware of the controversy surrounding lion walk sanctuaries and the adverse affect many play in conservation. Many have direct links to trophy hunting and should be exposed as such.

        However, it is my belief that the ALERT system is the only one in existence where they have actually succeeded in raising captive animals, and then through a four step process, allow lions to live in a pride setting, wild and hunting on their own. They now have two large groups of lions acting cohesively as a pride unit, which are free to act and behave as wild lions do.

        The article you reference is old. Since it was written many of ALERT’s critics…conservationists and biologists alike (in fact well over half of them) have changed their stance and at the very least have said that ALERT’s unique methods are worthy of at least being given a chance to work. Many are now fully on board with what ALERT is achieving. My stay there was rewarding, the lions were in excellent health and the people are intensely dedicated to what they believe is a viable way forward to ensure lions stay in the wild.

  • Mike D

    Great article. The plight of lions is grim. It seems there only chance of long term survival is a massive influx of money earmarked to protect them. Governments in Africa and around the world must contribute to the cause. Perhaps some wealthy philanthropist will help make a difference. It is very sad what humans have done to the king of the beasts. The death of Cecil opened the worlds eyes somewhat to the dangers lion face. Hopefully urgent action helps save the worlds most iconic animal.

  • Schroederville

    Wonderful article, thank you! I’m so sick of arguing with moronic U.S. hunters about the state of lions in Africa. So many of these knuckle dragging cretins insist that lions are plentiful and that no hunting restrictions should be enforced. These people think that the backlash against trophy hunting after the death of Cecil is a knee-jerk and emotional reaction, not scientifically backed, and they are wrong. The death of Cecil was important, it shone a bright light upon the ugly practice of trophy hunting and most people who never even think about it began to take notice.
    Because of Cecil I will be traveling to Africa later this year to go on eco-safari and hopefully see a lion in the wild, although this article is discouraging. All of my efforts from here out will be to save them. Something about that evil dentist touched my life in such a way that I am forever changed and now I want to work for saving lions. I love them and cannot imagine a world without them.

    Tim, in his comment below, brings up an excellent point about the practice of walking with lions. Those visiting Africa should beware of ANY place that allows direct human contact with the animals. No cub petting, no walking with lions, although I see the temptation to want an up-close personal encounter, don’t do it. The canned hunting industry is alive and functioning. I do hope that with all the recent attention on lions that that horrifying industry will be brought to its knees and be wiped out entirely. None of the lions are ever released into the wild. These places LIE. Please check out

    And if you donate, please donate to a reputable place that is actually helping lions! I have done my research and I support Walking For Lions, The Tanzania Lion Illumination Project, Lion Guardians (as mentioned in this article) and Born Free.

    • Michael Creaghan

      Very well said. If I may, when planning your trip to Africa, I would suggest looking into Botswana, No hunting allowed there and the game viewing is very good. I am sure you will see lions, maybe not big pride males, but plenty of lionesses. Also Sabi Sands in S. Africa is excellent as well.

  • africanne

    Very interesting! Thanks!!

  • africanne

    I think there is some contradictions about the subspecies… Panthera leo melanochaitus is extinct in the wild, it was the Cape Lion. On IUCN website there are only 2 subspecies Panthera leo Persica which is Asian lion, and the Panthera leo leo which is the African lion.

  • Bombino

    Absolutely love nature,nature works best when left alone and given ample prey and land. Hopefully humanity can wake up and fully protect and preserve what we cannot create!!

  • manny mayweather

    Fantastic ! I loved the points ! Does anyone know if my assistant would be able to acquire a fillable PK Visa Application Form version to complete ?