July 31 2015


400,000 lions were believed to exist in Africa in the 1950’s [1].  In 2013 it was estimated that 32,000 remain with “abundant evidence of widespread declines and local extinctions” even in protected areas [2].  In 2015 the IUCN stated “we have greater confidence in the estimate of fewer than 20,000 lions in Africa than in a number over 30,000”, and suggesting that lion numbers have declined by 42% in the past 21 years (1993 to 2014) [3].   

The most commonly cited threats to lion populations are summarized by the IUCN as “indiscriminate killing (primarily as a result of retaliatory or pre-emptive killing to protect life and livestock) and prey base depletion. Habitat loss and conversion has led to a number of populations becoming small and isolated”.  Further the IUCN suggests that trophy hunting “may have contributed to population declines in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe [3]”.

Habitat that could support lion populations is being converted to other land uses to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding human population.  In addition, lion habitat areas are becoming increasingly fragmented and more isolated.  This threat is coupled with prey base depletion as a rapidly rising human population, living with poverty and food insecurity, unsustainably hunt the species on which the lion relies, both for household use and commercial sale.  Lions and humans are therefore in direct competition for the same resources of space and food, and it is this competition that is the cause for the conflict between them; a conflict the lions will lose. 

Habitat fragmentation has a further consequence of limiting natural gene flow, leaving isolated lion populations open to the risks of inbreeding depression.  Looking forward, this isolation may also mean lions are unable to adapt to habitat changes as a result of climate change by moving from areas that are made unsuitable to areas that become suitable as a result of that same climate change.   The more frequent interface between humans and lions also allows for greater opportunities for disease to be transmitted between domestic animals and wildlife, with negative consequences for both. 

The underlying cause of the threats to lions are therefore a rapidly increasing human population that is living in poverty and subject to food insecurity; in competition with lions.  ALERT believes that any long term solutions for lions therefore must incorporate these issues, being complemented by programmes that increase the capacity of humans to live alongside lions. 

ALERT believes that for lions to survive, we must approach conservation by looking at each area in which Africans are seeking to conserve lions as a complex system that incorporates the needs of both lions and people.  Further, if support for conservation is to be built, conservation efforts must generate positive benefits to stakeholders.  To this end ALERT has developed a multi-disciplinary approach to conservation we term responsible development.  By uniting community and policy makers with non-governmental organizations, scientists and business leaders we believe that the best solutions can be proposed that can deal with both the underlying causes of the threats to lions, as well as the challenges those causes create.

ALERT therefore has four programme focus areas to implement the responsible development approach; in situ lion conservation (protecting wild lions in natural habitats), education, social development and conserving biodiversity.  The complexity and scale of the issues to be addressed before we can claim that sufficient habitat is truly protected for lions, such that they can exist in viable numbers, across a continent, is huge and will take a long time.  Whilst this work is undertaken the number of lions in the wild will continue to fall with many sub-populations becoming extinct and needing re-establishment. 

ALERT believes that despite lions’ ability to recover quickly under protected conditions, the remnant population in the majority of areas, that will be the founders of this recovery, will likely have limited genetic variation and therefore an unhealthy population may be created.  Additionally, removing some of these lions to re-establish lost populations will also be subject to the political will of governments unlikely to be keen on supporting lion conservation, and the tourism that lions generate, in other countries – a response we are already seeing in Africa to current attempts to re-establish lost populations through translocation.  As such, ALERT has a fifth programme focus, which is for the ex situ management of lions to create an additional source to compliment species recovery.

During the coming week ALERT will be introducing you to these five programme focus areas, and the projects on the ground making a difference.   You can support our work here

[1] Myers N (1975) The silent savannahs. International Wildlife 5(5): 5-10
[2] Riggio J, Jacobson A, Dollar L, Bauer H, Becker M, Dickman A, Funston P, Groom R, Henschel P, de Iongh H, Lichtenfeld L, Pimm S (2012) The size of savannah Africa: a lion's (Panthera leo) view.  Biodiversity Conservation Dec 12 DOI 10.1007/s10531-012-0381-4.
[3] Bauer H, Packer C, Funston PF, Henschel P, Nowell K (2015) Panthera leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2.


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