World Lion Day: the crises, the key drivers, and what we can do

It’s World Lion Day, which may or may not surprise, given that, when it comes to creating awareness about vulnerable or endangered species, we are generally far more aware of the plight of the elephant or rhino than we are the lion. This will partly be because the lion is less threatened by international poaching than it is other factors; and partly down to the fact that it is listed as ‘vulnerable’ and not ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Truth is, the lion needs as much help as it can possibly get. Historically, Panthera leo ranged throughout much of Africa, south Asia and even parts of Europe. That range has shrunk to sub-Saharan Africa and to a tiny enclave in north-east India. Population estimates for 100 years ago stand at around 200,000. Today, it is thought that there are between 20,000 and 30,000 left, with a 43% decline having occurred in the last 22 years.

That’s the overall picture. It’s a little more complicated once you begin looking at different countries, or comparing different protected areas. Owing to having much smaller human populations, and to the success of various conservation initiatives, the decline in the likes of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe is slower than other places. Some protected areas have seen increases, such as Niassa Reserve in Mozambique, but they buck the trend. Underfunded national parks and reserves tend to lose more lion, and outside of protected areas, the drop is significant.

The main reasons for the decline are human-lion conflict, habitat loss and prey depletion through poaching. Lion are lost to bushmeat poaching, and there is a trade in bones, servicing markets – in West Africa and Asia, mainly Vietnam, Thailand and Laos – fuelled by a belief in their medicinal properties. The 60% decline of lion outside of protected areas comes through conflict between lion and humans, with farmers resorting to poisoning, shooting or spearing lion in response to loss of livestock.

It’s a decline that can be reversed. Lion ranges are large, and establishing corridors between wildernesses and buffer zones around protected areas are vital to allowing for healthy populations. Meanwhile, a recent study shows that numbers of lion in protected areas are significantly lower than they could be, and suggest that they could conceivably carry up to 80,000 lion. Reversing trends, it says, will require a coordinated and more effective level of support from government and the donor community for all protected areas, and especially those that are struggling to support their lion. The same report estimates that lion conservation funding will need to increase threefold and more. At the same time, it recommends better investment in communal and private lands, and in establishing partnerships with local communities, and highlights the importance of sustainable travel as being a key driver.

So, much to mull over on World Lion Day. The key thing, all is not lost. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, a fact best illustrated by examples of great protected area and conservancy management practices, and by travel-driven conservation initiatives that have managed to change behaviour to the point that the lion is valued for itself, for the direct benefits it brings the community, for the key part it plays in a given ecosystem, and for how its conservation supports wider sustainable development initiatives. One such initiative, the Masaai Olympics, is captured very well in a film by Beverly and Dereck Joubert, Tribe vs Pride, released today. Do have a watch.

If you would like to get involved in helping the lion, then the Lion Recovery Fund would be a great place to start. In the meantime, if you’d like to know more, then please get in touchBelow image © Brilliant Maps


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