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Fighting To Survive

After years of persecution by a growing human population, lions have now disappeared from over 90% of their original range but how and why has this happened?

The lion 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 species 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 and still found in some areas of the Middle East well into the 1800's, 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 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. 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 by either habitat loss and fragmentation or human-wildlife conflict.

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More and 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 above shows the Fig Tree Pride of the Maasai Mara National Reserve with the town of Talek behind. The picture top right shows wheat crops being grown alongside the road from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the picture below shows cattle being walked through them to find water. 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. 

Habitat loss and fragmentation throughout the continent means wild Africa is shrinking.

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 more recently 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.

A Safina Connection...
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Our conservation partner Kope Lion focus their work in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Here intensifying human-wildlife conflicts have been tough on the lions. In the last decades, the lions have begun to disappear entirely from their former ranges, separating the famous Ngorongoro Crater lions from the Serengeti. Kope Lion was established in 2011 with the aim to work with directly with the local people to strive for sustainable human-lion coexistence for the benefit of both people and lions. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area was gazetted in 1959 as one of the first multiple-use landscape, where traditional pastoralist populations would share the land with the abundant wildlife. Over the years the areas rapidly growing human population has intensified human-wildlife conflicts which has resulted in a drastic decline in the lion population which has disappeared from much of this particular area.

Here at Safina we have worked with Kope Lion to sponsor a GPS collar which has been fitted on a 5 year old male lion named Laipangwa pictured above. Our recent reports (November 2020) have shared with us that he has currently settled with a group of lionesses, the lionesses originate from the Crater itself whereas Laipangwa originates from the Ndutu area which borders the Serengeti. The presence of lions settling in the conservation area in between the crater and the Serengeti is brilliant news not only testament to the success of the mitigation efforts run by the projects but also for the genetic flow between both areas which is now being reinstated.

Development throughout Africa has pushed lions and the local people into liver in closer proximity than ever before. This has created more conflict between lions and people.

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 wet 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 which is incredibly cheap. Both have a catastrophic effect on the lion and local wildlife population and death by poison can be an awful death and slow death for any lion but can also affect any other predator and scavenging species that may eat from an infected carcass such as jackals and vultures. Traditionally lions have also been used in ceremonial killings but this is now becoming largely unpopular within these 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 Safina Connection...
Human - Wildlife Conflict

Lion Guardians are one of these community projects which work to protect lions and to promote coexistence with the local people. Their mission is to promote sustainable coexistence between people and lions using cultural values, community participation and science. The Lion Guardians approach involves recruiting young, traditional Masai and other pastoralist warriors to learn the skills needed to effectively mitigate conflicts between people and wildlife, monitor lion populations, and help their own communities live with lions. By actively engaging in this solutions-based conservation model, people who were once lion killers are transformed into lion protectors.

Lion Guardians work with communities in many ways including the reinforcing of bomas and alerting communities of nearby lions. It is vital to work hand in hand with the local communities and by offering training and employment the benefits of this programme to the local communities are huge not to mention the benefit for the lion and wildlife population. Here at Safina we are proud to have sponsored a Lion Guardian since winter 2017, our current guardian Kuya Kipampa is pictured above.

After years focussing on tigers, the illegal wildlife trade has now reached lions...

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. 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.

In conclusion with many former lion territories no longer holding 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. Lions are people have coexisted for thousands of years but now pressures on both sides are forcing them to collide. Fortunately there are many good local organisations, schemes and people working for the benefit of both the people and the wildlife, here at Safina we are committed to helping organisations fund work in areas that hold wildlife to benefit both people and the lions.

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