Tigers, yes. Cheetahs, absolutely. Snow leopards, of course. Even people who are not expert at biology or the environment probably recognize that many of the world’s species of large cats are in danger of extinction. But lions? These large and formidable predators do not readily come to mind when one thinks of all the animals in Africa that face challenges to their very survival. And yet African lion populations have decreased by half in the last two decades, and their long term survival outside of national parks and designated reserves is currently untenable.
From a high of perhaps 400,000 in the middle of the 20th Century, the current population of lions is considerably less than 50,000, and perhaps as few as 23,000. Once ranging throughout Africa and through Eurasia, lions are now confined to south of the Saharan desert and to parts of southern and eastern Africa, with a very small isolated population in India. Populations are geographically cut off from one another, causing a serious lack of genetic diversity. How could this have happened to an animal so powerful it became popularly known as the ‘king of the jungle’?
Disease is certainly a culprit, along with the loss of prey animals and conflicts with other predators. But, as one would suspect, the most damaging factor is conflict with humans. Lions are hunted both as trophies and as part of tribal traditions, and human expansion subsumes lion habitat. Then there’s the livestock question; the pastoralists depend on their domesticated animals to survive while lions see cattle and goats and sheep as an easy way to feed the pride. The lions kill the livestock; the keepers kill the lions in return. These retaliatory killings are estimated to account for up to 20% of deaths of all lions in the areas affected. Over the past six years pastoralist families have lost more than 500 head of livestock including cattle, goat, sheep and donkeys due to predation by lions, while more than 226 lions have been killed in retaliation for livestock predation.
The Indianapolis Zoo, which has long had African lions among the big cats in its collection, supports one of the projects that is helping to change those dynamics around. In addition to conducting basic research on lions, Dr. Bernard Kissui of the African Wildlife Federation’s Tarangire Lion Project is literally saving lions through mending fences. Not fences that keep lions in, but fences that protect livestock at night from being eaten by lions. It's a creative conservation solution that connects the people to the animals.
Small corrals, or bomas, are used by the local Maasai peoples to protect their livestock at night. Traditionally made from thorny brush or poles, these are no match for lions. Dr. Kissui and his team have improved livestock security by reinforcing the bomas with chain link fencing. This method of making bomas predator proof can be expensive for pastoralist families, so the Project supports them through a cost sharing program that is in turn supported by the Indianapolis Zoo.
According to the African Wildlife Federation (AWF), this program has been highly effective, and has enabled 105 families to reinforce their bomas with chain link fences. AWF monitors each reinforced boma on a monthly basis to ensure its effectiveness in deterring predators like lions. Pastoral communities that are currently using the chain link fences rate them positively, and many more households are interested in adopting this technique to improve livestock security at the same time they are improving their own economic security. In turn, this results in a more secure future for the remaining 170 lions that live in proximity to the Maasai villages. It’s a start.
Lion Photo by Mark Zelonis
Bernard Kissui Photo-African Wildlife Federation