FIGHTING TO SURVIVE
The lions was once the most widespread large land mammal on the planet second to man. They evolved out of East Africa and quickly spread throughout the continent into Europe, the Middle East and even throughout Asia. Earlier subspecies even ventured into Western Europe and North America via Russia.
Sadly this grand title has now been taken off this great species. The lion evolved to fortify itself against its only natural enemy – themselves. For more information on this please click here.
The lion therefore is a species that has evolved so successfully it only had to worry about the success of its own species. Sadly in recent years their wild numbers have dropped catastrophically. Still being found in parts of the Middle East and Europe only a couple of thousand years ago during the reign of the roman empire, the lion population quickly retreated to its last strong hold, their home continent of Africa.
However during the 1800’s when the colonisation of Africa began lions were hunted in great numbers, they were the prized trophy and the part of the ultimate hunt. Man was completely unaware that the losses would soon start to take a great effect. In the last one 100 years the entire wild lion population has dropped from anywhere between 200,000 – 600,000 to the most recent estimate of 23,000. Even more surprisingly a recent study showed that lion numbers have dropped by 42% in between the years 1993-2014. A truly horrifying statistic.
Sadly lions have more than one threat facing them in the wild, with every single one coming from man. To simplify this we can split the two main issues in half, as seen below:
Many former lion territories no longer hold wildlife, many areas have now been turned into agricultural land used to grow crops, roads, towns and cities have now been built and wildlife populations are now being cut off from one another.
Wildlife and local communities are now forced closer together than ever before. Both lions and people are now in direct competition for resources and the land which they both need to feed their families.
Sadly the problems facing lions in the wild do not just face lions alone. All of Africa's species are in trouble as they try to exist in areas where they are now no longer tolerated. We must however keep our respect for the local communities who have lived alongside wildlife for thousands of years. It is sadly the influence of the western world that can be blamed for the destruction of the majority of the World's wildlife. Just take Britain for example, the last wolf was said to be killed in 1680 and we are now seen to be one of the most ecologically deprived countries in the World.
Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
Wild Africa is shrinking, more land is being used to house the growing human population, for agricultural farmland and growing cities. Wildlife habitat is being destroyed and being surrounded by human development. This means that not only has important natural habitat been lost the wildlife is unable to travel freely as it has been able to since the dawn of time.
The picture left shows wheat crops being grown alongside the road from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Only a few years ago this was open savannah land full of wildlife from lions to elephants. Now it is sterile , no longer supporting the wildlife that used to live there or providing safe passageway for wildlife to move across the country. Fencing and land ownership which will be discussed further down this page is also a major problem, disrupting the traditional migratory routes used by many wildlife species. The lion and all African wildlife are now dependent on the last strongholds, the national parks for their protection.
For a species like the lion whose genetic health lies in the ability of free travel, lion populations are becoming more and more saturated with less lions of unknown or less familiar genes entering. Now with these isolated populations the lions are unable to move freely and their genetics are becoming more and more compressed. Inbreeding is now occurring in many of these populations and many issues are starting to show. Inbreeding is a well-known cause of fertility and health problems once this affects wild populations it is very hard to irradiate. Once the damage is done it makes it incredibly difficult to bring the lions up to healthy standing again. One such population famous for being studied for inbreeding are the lions of the Ngorongoro Crater, they have been studied by lion expert Dr Craig Packer who wrote a feature article on these lions in the National Geographic Magazine, April 1992. The entire population descends from fifteen individuals, eight resident lions from the area and seven males from the Serengeti. The area has received no new lions since 1969. The male lion cubs stayed in this area and started taking over their home prides. These lions have been inbreeding since 1969, these lions are now suffering from reproductive issues and are closer to getting many diseases.
With small isolated populations disease is not only more likely due to inbreeding it's impact will be even greater as it could wipe out any of these small populations in one bout. Diseases like canine distemper have already made their mark in populations in Tanzania and now in 2018, the Gir Forest in India, home of the last wild population of Asiatic Lions.
Lion society has evolved in a way that requires a lot of space, now that more and more space is being taken off lions their pride system is now making their lives even more difficult to survive. When the younger lions are not tolerated anymore in their birth pride they seek refuge on the edges of traditional lion territories. Now these areas are full of people and cows and now it is incredibly common that these young lions will not return as adults.
Human - Wildlife Conflict
Development throughout Africa has pushed the lion and the local people into living in closer proximity than ever before. With the loss of prey species in many areas when not in the monsoon season many predators are quick to notice a 'temporary' solution to struggling to find a meal. Goats and cows are incredibly easy prey and will easily suffice to fill the stomach of a hungry lion but once they have realised how easy it has been who would want to go back to the wild prey that is so much harder to catch?
To the lion it is an easy meal but to the Farmer whose livestock it is, these cows and goats are his livelihood and the only way he is able to keep his family with food on the table. When livestock are repeatedly taken, action is required. Traditionally it could be a hunting party or it could be poison. Both have a catastrophic effect on the lion and local wildlife population. Traditionally lions have also been used in ceremonial killings but this is now becoming largely unpopular within tribal communities.
Efforts to get wildlife and people to coexist largely focus on the problem of cattle. The biggest problem is illegal cattle grazing, herdsmen bringing their cattle into national parks at night where they are not allowed. They do this because of the pressure already being felt on the community lands and the need to keep their cattle alive. Cattle are also having an alarming effect on the landscape as they strip the ground bare, making it harder for the natural grass eaters to survive. If the land is not worth visiting, the herds will not come back leaving the predators within these areas without a natural food source.
More and more schemes and conservation projects have started to focus on this issue and to solve the problems. Lions are mainly dawn and dusk hunters, instead of leaving their cattle to graze farmers are now having to keep their cattle secure at night but now more and more lions are braving the traditional thorned compounds. Through these projects Boma's are being reinforced with chain-link fencing, lights and sirens are being used as deterrents and the Farmers themselves are taught how to deal with a potential problem lion and to get in contact with the project leaders before any drastic action is taken. Every single lion is crucial to the survival of their species and in unprotected areas projects like this are even more crucial to keep them alive.
Often accidently lions are caught up in the bushmeat trade. Snares are laid out to catch animals such as antelope and primate species that could be killed to eat. Sadly a snare is a snare and they do not pick which species wanders into them. Lions caught up in these snares can either be used for bushmeat or killed for their body parts.
A war is being fought between two great communities. Lions are people have coexisted for thousands of years but now pressures on both sides are forcing them to collide. Here at Safina we work with organisations working to find solutions for the people and the lions themselves.
There is a relatively new threat now facing wild lions. The trade in Illegal wildlife parts is often seen in hot spots such as South East Asia and is normally only associated with Ivory in Africa but now lions are being used to supplement the trade in body parts in Asia
Illegal Wildlife Trade
Tiger bone has long been a part of traditional Chinese medicine apparently holding medicinal properties. This has never been proved by science and it has seen the destruction of tiger populations all over Asia. Tigers are now endangered and numbers are down to an estimated 3,500 and being so hard and now expensive to come by, lions are seen as the ideal substitute. Lions are bred in South Africa for hunting purposes and lion bones are regularly sent to china to be used in traditional Chinese medicine. Now greed and impatience is seeing lions outside of South Africa being caught up in this trade.
Lion skins have long been seen as the ultimate trophy, although they are deliberately bred for hunting in South Africa many people still hunt lions illegally in and around protected areas. Although lions are not listed as an endangered species many individual countries and individual airlines are now banning lion parts on their planes or to enter their countries.
These two items show the main products of the Illegal wildlife trade, a lion skin seen right - This is a custom seizure skin currently held at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Bedfordshire, UK. The picture on the left shows a packet with a lion on the front, this actually contains leopard bones and would be sold on the black market as an aphrodisiac - This is currently held at Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom near Telford, UK.