Lion numbers have dropped from an already reduced 450,000 down to just 20,000 and possibly even lower today. People have shot, speared, trapped and poisoned lions relentlessly. We have chopped up their habitat, introduced diseases and, lately, we have begun to change the climate they and the rest of us live in. Most of all, we are swamping them by our sheer numbers. The 20,000 lions cling to the last remaining habitat our 7 billion people have not yet got to.
I strongly believe that unless we recognize this as an emergency and take action now, we will witness the extinction of wild lions these iconic predators that once ruled from the southern tip of Africa all the way to northwestern India by 2020.
Extinction by 2020. What would that mean? Besides the loss of the magic and romance of these majestic animals, and our spiritual connection with them, there would be a cascade of ecological impacts. The first of these would be an increase in some of the lion's prey, such as wildebeest and buffalo, which would also become less alert and less active in the absence of a fearsome predator. These larger, more stagnant populations of herbivores could overgraze their habitat, leading to soil erosion that in turn causes poor water quality downstream and aids the invasion of weeds and exotic plant species. Finally the bloated populations of prey could collapse as the degraded habitat can no longer support them.
There would be economic and social costs to people, too. In Ghana, for example, when fish stocks declined and men turned to meat poaching to feed their families, they wiped out the competition for game lions and started chipping away at wildlife populations. As a result of the disappearance of predators, baboons got bolder and their numbers exploded. In turn, these bolder and more numerous baboons started raiding crop farms and attacking farmers.
Worldwide, the ecotourism industry generates about $200 billion a year an estimated $80 billion of which ends up in Africa. Most African tourism is safari tourism. Research indicates that if big cats were no longer featured on that dream safari, far fewer people would come to Africa. Without the $80 billion annual revenue stream communities (and some governments) would start failing and poverty would increase.
In addition to the problem of those that don't appreciate lions enough, there is the challenge of those who appreciate this big cat too much. One example of the latter is trophy hunting. I am not anti-hunting. With just 20,000 lions left, however, targeting one of the last 4,500 male lions on Earth with a high-powered rifle merely to serve the pleasure of ego, sport and power, seems inappropriate right now.
Each year an average of about 500 lion trophies or skins enter the United States from trophy hunting in Africa. If you do the math, you quickly see that this is not sustainable. Because male lions operate in coalitions of two or three, each male lion that is shot leaves the remaining male outmatched in the next territorial fight, and he is expelled. There is no future for expelled lions, so one license effectively kills two males. At the same time his eight females (on average) and their 24 cubs are left without defenders. The new alpha males are genetically wired to kill all cubs and start the breeding process again with their genes. So one license is really cleaning out between 20 and 30 lions each time and if Americans are responsible for 500 of those licenses, they are effectively killing lions at an enormous rate.
If I had to choose I' would say the biggest threat to lions is the burgeoning human population. I tracked the curve of lion populations during the past 50 years and then compared it to the human population curve. The result: Every time we add a billion people to our roster we cut their populations in half. We are in essence squeezing big cats out of existence.
With the human population explosion there is an associated cattle explosion.
In Africa, cattle culture communities especially in areas suffering from climate-change-induced drought are grazing domestic stock farther and farther into wildlife reserves than ever. Cattle are different than indigenous grazing animals especially in the numbers now being raised by herders. They rip out the grass and chop up sensitive ground in a way that wildebeest and zebras do not. The cattle stay in certain areas and do more damage every day while wildebeest charge through millions of acres of habitat on their well-refined migratory circuits. But once again, it is humans that do more damage. Cattle cultures up and down Africa are in daily conflict with predators, for understandable reasons; lions eat their livelihood.
Those who wish to do harm to lions have at their disposal a granular poison known as carbofuran, the most popular of which goes under the trade name of Furadan. This substance, developed by an American company as a crop pesticide, is so toxic that it is banned in the United States and the European Union but it is widely available in East Africa. A quarter teaspoon kills a lion (and a human) in minutes. A handful sprinkled on an animal carcass wipes out a whole pride that feeds on the carcass, the hyenas that come in afterwards, the vultures and jackals and any insects that settle there. It is a dirty bomb against wildlife and the natural world and rapidly becoming the poachers weapon of choice.
When we and other conservationists engaged with the manufacturers, they started buying it back in Kenya. The buyback program is too slow, however, and this potent chemical is still being used, and spreading west and south like an epidemic. Tragically, a young Kenyan boy ate some late last year and dropped dead. In another recent incident, workers at a lodge in Maasai Mara National Park sprinkled some on their vegetable gardens, killing a hippo that night, and lions and vultures that came to feed on the hippo the next day.
Another sinister activity that threatens lions (and other big cats) is the trade in their body parts for traditional medicines. There is a burgeoning bone market in Asia for medicines in the ground-up form, or as tea, soup and wine. Drinking tiger or lion bone wine is thought to enhance sexual prowess. It is largely tiger bones that satisfy this need now, but there is no perceivable difference between tiger and lion bone, so lions are being poached for Eastern medicine now as well.
In South Africa recently, the authorities in one province issued permits for a farmer who was previously in the canned lions hunting business (a practice where lions are bred and raised in small enclosures and then shot in a safari hunt to now kill 44 of his lions and turn them into bones. These bones will be legally sanctioned and exported to the East. Now, thanks to this action, anyone with illegal tiger bones can claim they are legal lion bones from South Africa.
The goal of the Big Cats Initiative is to halt the decline in lion numbers by 2015 and gradually restore populations to sustainable levels at least double present levels. A major component of this effort is educating local communities about how to protect themselves against lion attacks. We have produced films in Ma and Swahili to help. We are finding ways to help communities see economic benefits from lions and other big cats through ecotourism, for example. And we are helping people avoid economic losses by paying compensation to cattle owners if their livestock is killed by one of our lions. We offer compensation for their lost cattle at fair market value but only if there are no lions killed by Maasai warriors and hunters during that quarter.
Female lions do most of the hunting, working in teams to stalk and ambush their prey.
Find more facts on our lion fact sheethttp://www.defenders.org/wildlife_and_habitat/wildlife/lion.php
We are also getting behind saving one lion at a time, realizing that we need to be careful we do not abandon genetically isolated populations. Recently we looked at a small lion population in Wasa National Park in Cameroon. Wasa park may have only a handful of lions, but new genetic evidence shows that many of these populations are unique. As always, it is a lot cheaper to protect species than reintroduce them later when they are locally extinct.
To sit and listen to a lion roar in the African bush is to sit on the edge of paradise, a wilderness that is both rare and essential. Without lions and other big cats, the world will increasingly become a place filled with clutter and noise. And the noble statues of lions that grace our cities will stand silently as reminders of the fork in the road we could have taken.