Revered in both African and global cultures, these magnificent big-maned cats remain a bucket list sighting for safari-goers for good reason.
Lions may not be endangered yet, but their International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN ) vulnerable status only tells half the story. Already extinct in 26 countries, the global lion population has plummeted by 43 per cent over the past 21 years according to the Born Free Foundation. Bleak forecasts suggest Simba could be scratched from African savannas for good by 2050.
With no natural predators to speak of, the majestic big cats’ struggle for survival hinges on us. According to the WWF, a double whammy of climate change and habitat loss have meant lions now inhabit just a woeful eight per cent of their former range.
Playing a pivotal role in controlling the ecosystem from the top down, these highly social natural athletes regulate prey populations by killing the weakest, oldest and sickest of the herd. But the mighty ‘King of the Jungle’ – that has long symbolised strength and courage – can only buffer the onslaught of human-caused stressors for so long…
The Mane Threats
Unsustainable hunting practices, the brutal trade of lion body parts for traditional medicine, or bushmeat, indiscriminate snare captures and the controversial sport of trophy hunting are just some of the big cat problems pushing lions closer to extinction. Hitting them hardest is habitat destruction and fragmentation. Prides rely on space and safety to roam, and young males need to venture beyond the borders of small reserves to establish their own territories.
Meanwhile, climate change looms large over both African lions and their Asian cousins, impacting everything from access to watering holes to availability of prey. Our planet’s increasingly extreme weather patterns will only exacerbate human-lion conflict, which remains one of the biggest challenges to these apex predators’ ongoing conservation.
Farmers vs Lions
A deadly combination of drought and expanding settlements is driving more and more big cats – in particular elderly and starving lions – to the fringes of protected parks and reserves, and closer to people and their livestock. Three months ago, ten lions were slaughtered in the space of one week by farmers in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park in retaliation for killing 12 of their goats.
Sending more shockwaves through the big cat conservation community in May was the tragic death of Loonkiito; one of the world’s oldest known lions and a long-time resident of Amboseli. The 19-year-old was speared to death by a Kenyan livestock herder after breaking into his wildlife enclosure.
Some 2,000 miles south in the UNESCO Heritage floodplains of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, a Communal Herding Project established by non-profit The CLAWS Conservancy is tackling locals’ livestock losses by putting community at the centre of the solution. Human-lion conflicts have long blighted Northern Botswana’s Okavango Panhandle that’s home to traditional herding and farming villages like Eretsha. ‘We quickly realised that livestock losses [here] were a symptom of a larger problem, cattle are wandering the landscape unattended,’ Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainably (CLAWS) Conservancy founder Dr. Andrew Stein tells The Ethicalist.
And so, strategic herding – which involves everything from assessing vegetation to the herders’ unique formation – was put into practice. Supervising several herding teams and changing attitudes towards these feared predators in the process is trailblazing mother-of-two Kelebogile Moitshoi. After spending a year training at South Africa’s Herding Academy, the 31-year-old returned to her homeland where she now manages three bomas – livestock enclosures – across two villages.
‘When herding cattle, we have a system we observe,’ she explains. ‘Our system consists of four people moving the cattle: one at the back to drive the cattle; two people on both flanks or sides to keep the cattle together so they do not spread out; and one person in the front is the leader of the herd. The leader keeps a lookout for potential predators, assessing the ground for predator tracks, and also assesses the vegetation to ensure it is healthy for grazing and free from poisonous plants. When satisfied the herd leader will give a signal for the herd to stop and graze.’ She will also chase away any lions that fancy an easy meal of the herd.
‘Kelebogile is truly a pioneer in that she has taken on a leadership role in a field that is typically considered ‘men’s work,’’Stein says. ‘By herding the cattle, we can improve rangelands, sequester carbon, improve cattle health, protect lions and access greater markets for Wildlife Friendly Beef.’
‘I’m the breadwinner!’ she proudly tells The Ethicalist. As well as supporting her own children, Kelebogile takes care of her blind father, mother and two sisters. ‘My hope is that both livestock and predators will be conserved for our future generations,’ she says.
The Silent Carnivore Killer
Stein was compelled to set up the CLAWS Conservancy after a spate of poisoning events slashed the local lion population, in Northern Okavango Delta, by half in a single year.
‘Livestock farmers were retaliating for losses to lions and felt that lions were a conflict species,’ he explains, ‘since poison is indiscriminate, it kills everything in its path including innocent animals like endangered vultures, hyenas, etc.’
With the help of Germany’s University of Siegen, he turned to technology to rewrite the big cat narrative and prove that not all animals are killing cattle. ‘We asked villagers to name the 24 lions we collared in their native [Setswana] language to create a deeper, personal connection,’ Stein explains. Rolled out in 2019, their game-changing ‘Lion Alert System’ works by sending either a text or voicemail to the 250 participants when a collared lion is within a two-mile radius of a homestead or cattle-post – an unfenced, communal area where cattle are grazed.
‘Most recipients respond by gathering their cattle into small enclosures for safety, and lighting small fires around the periphery to scare the lions away,’ Stein explains, ‘and so far, we’ve seen collared lions run between 4-6 miles after such encounters, likely saving lives of cattle and lions.’
In neighbouring Zambia, vultures are lions’ unlikely allies in the fight against poisoning. An estimated three quarters of Kafue National Park’s lions have perished at the hands of poachers in the last 50 years. Fast forward to 2023 and it is deliberately contaminated cow carcasses laced with carbofuran, a highly toxic pesticide, that are proving to be their biggest nemesis.
Africa’s third largest National Park’s novel approach to safeguarding its 200 remaining lions involves satellite-tagging endangered white-backed and hooded vultures. Dubbed ‘nature’s clean-up crew’ for their efficiency in removing disease-carrying pathogens on carrion, these remarkable birds – who are equally vulnerable to death by carbofuran – are helping to pinpoint the source of poisoned carcasses.
The birds are drawn to dead animal carcasses and so are lions. The quick arrival of the vultures lets wildlife managers know about possibly poisoned carcasses – before the lions and leopards can get to them. They also stop the birds eating them.
So far 19 vultures have been tagged as part of the pioneering programme launched in 2019 by North Carolina Zoo in collaboration with global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera, which together are helping to save both bird and lion.
Return of the Roar
More signs that our maned friends could make a roaring comeback across the African continent come from lesser-known countries like Chad, Senegal and Mozambique, whose lions have nowhere near the protections that their South African cousins enjoy.
A so-called ‘extinct’ lioness was sighted as recently as April in Chad’s Sena Oura, making it the first lion sighting in the National Park in 20 years. Meanwhile, the lion population in north-eastern Rwanda’s Akagera National Park has gone from zero to 58 in two decades thanks to a successful South African translocation project that began in 2015.
Rewilding other species is key to helping apex predators like lions rebound, as Mozambique’s Zinave National Park has shown. Located in one of the continent’s most remote regions, the protected park was reduced to a wildlife graveyard by the country’s civil war, which lasted from 1977 to 1992. A seven-year-long programme spearheaded by Peace Parks Foundation has released 2,400 animals – most recently rhino and leopards– here, transforming it into a prey-rich paradise for big cats. After a decade-long hiatus, a male lion was captured on a remote camera in 2021, making Zinave Mozambique’s only park to boast all ‘big five.’
It’s a much-needed reminder that nature has an extraordinary ability to bounce back, given the chance.