The last roar of Africa's lions
“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.
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.
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.
While 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.”
Soon 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.
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.
Refuge for lions?
The 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
Ecologist 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.