Losing the legacy: the plight of the lion

The king of the jungle (or more accurately, the savannah) is under siege, with the lion more vulnerable now than ever before.

As human encroachment continues to threaten the lion’s kingdom and all within, this fearsome and awe-inspiring big cat – which holds such significant cultural, ecological, and economic value for the continent – has been reduced to small, isolated populations scattered across sub-Saharan Africa.

An estimated 20,000 lions remain in the wild today, down from 200,000 in 1975 and double that in 1950. These catastrophic losses have undoubtedly had likewise catastrophic impacts on ecosystems, as the lion is an apex predator, ruling from the top and regulating prey populations in lower trophic levels.

The threats to Africa’s largest felid are becoming more prominent with the growing human population, and lion conservation priorities must be identified and acted upon with haste. Establishing and maintaining connectivity between remnant populations, most found in far between protected areas, is critical to the species’ survival, as is the quelling of lion-human conflict occurring on the boundaries of these protected areas.

Without proper consensus between the relevant authorities, however, the effectiveness of efforts to save the lion may be futile.

Ecological and cultural significance of the lion.

The fate of lions holds importance beyond their own species.

They are generalist hypercarnivores (unfussy and prolific meat-eaters), hunting a wide range of prey from giraffe and buffalo to porcupines and honey badgers. Lions are unrivalled in their role as apex predators, dominating other big cats such as cheetahs and leopards by stealing kills and occasionally killing cubs and adults.

This ecological niche they fill exerts a powerful influence on the ecosystem processes and trophic interactions within savannah habitats. By feeding heavily on herbivore populations, and thereby regulating them, lions indirectly shape the vegetative communities on which their prey feed. This holds intrinsic value in suppressing grazers and browsers, reducing herbivore population densities and preventing vegetation from being decimated. This in turn not only allows for healthy, well-nourished herbivore species, but also maintains habitat for smaller animals.

Reductions or total loss of lion populations from ecosystems trigger meso-predator release, a specific type of trophic cascade resulting in increased numbers of smaller carnivores ordinarily limited by the apex predator. Bird populations take the brunt of this, and the consequential alteration in vegetation community structure ultimately contributes to climate change. In this respect, much like the elephant, the lion is a keystone species in the savannah ecosystem of sub-Saharan Africa.

Aside from their ecological significance, lions also hold cultural significance across much of their historic range, including Eurasia.

Lions ranged throughout Eurasia and Africa during the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from just over two million years ago to 11,000 years ago. The earliest cultural depictions of them – ivory carvings found in Vogelherd Cave, Germany – have been dated to between 32,000 to 40,000 years ago. Carvings and paintings depicting lions in numerous caves in France date back to 17,000 years ago. More recently, the Greek historian Herodotus reported lions as common in Greece in 480 BC, however, they were extirpated shortly after the turn of the millennium.

Despite their widespread historical range, lions have now been reduced to fragmented populations in sub-Saharan Africa and one Critically Endangered population in western India. Their current predicament is perilous, and the lion is well on its way to extinction in the wild.

Conservation status and threats.

A lack of consistency among two of the leading global authorities on wildlife conservation presents its own threat to lion conservation.

The lion has been listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List since 1996, and on Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) since 1977. These listings do not match up; ‘Vulnerable’ species are defined as those threatened with extinction, whereas species listed on Appendix II are those not yet threatened with extinction, but close to it. Appendix II species can be subject to trade.

Lion populations have declined by up to 90 % since they were placed on Appendix II, suggesting the need for a higher level of legal protection for the species is not only appropriate, but downright obvious.

Multiple proposals to up-list the species to Appendix I have been met with resistance and failure, with opposition stemming from fear of threatening the trophy hunting industry. These proposals did, however, force a new annotation to the listing in 2016 which prohibited the commercial trade of bones from wild lions – compromise seems to be an all too familiar fate in wildlife conservation.

Threats abound, unless governing bodies are willing to put the lion first and show the same zeal and commitment shown by conservation charities and supporters worldwide, no substantial progress can be made to protect the species’ future.

In Africa, lions have lost over 75 % of their habitat over the last hundred years due to urban development and agriculture. What’s left is a fragmented landscape of small, distant habitat patches with insufficient numbers of prey to sustain long-term viable lion populations; instead, these populations are at great risk of suffering inbreeding depression and subsequent loss of genetic diversity. Local extinctions further down the road, without appropriate intervention, are inevitable.

As these wide-ranging animals are squeezed into smaller and more isolated areas, conflict with humans becomes a burgeoning issue. The smaller size of these areas means a larger proportion is comprised of ‘edge’ – zones encompassing the core interior which have greater contact with outside influences, such as livestock and human settlements.

These zones can create deceptive vacuums for lions, especially males. Males whose territories include protected area boundaries are more likely to prey on livestock, and retaliatory killing by herders is a common response. This then leaves empty territories for other males, attracted by the abundance of easy prey (livestock) and unattended prides of females. They too, most likely, will fall victim to retaliatory killing and so the cycle continues.

It is clear that population connectivity and conflict prevention methods are the most urgent approaches in lion conservation. Potent legal protection through collaboration between lion range states is necessary to maximise the effectiveness of these approaches.

Lion conservation.

Connectivity between remnant lion populations is critical for maintaining their long-term viability. Currently, dispersal between protected areas is risky for lions due to the matrix of agricultural land and human settlements which lie between and the resulting conflict with humans is a leading cause of mortality for the species.

The creation and protection of dispersal corridors is an emerging popular strategy for many wide-ranging species, improving connectivity between isolated populations and hence safeguarding them from genetic decline. Strategically placed fences can be used to funnel dispersing individuals between protected areas via corridors of suitable habitat, protected from human land-use. These corridors would also provide safe dispersal routes for myriad other species.

Where designation of protected corridors is not possible, translocations of individuals is a viable alternative used widely in conservation, although should not be the preferred method.

Without these protected corridors, livestock depredation by lions moving through pastoral land-use areas is more likely, resulting in local persecution and retaliatory killings by herders. Where livestock is kept in close proximity to protected lion populations, use of traditional livestock-guarding practices, such as keeping them in enclosures at night, is proven to greatly reduce loss of livestock and goes a long way to promoting tolerance of lions by local communities.

These conservation efforts to protect the lion, however, are meaningless unless the legal protections applied to the species is significant and enforced.

Legislation and policy regarding wildlife faces significant challenges in application, often due to inadequate funding, competing political interests, and differential enforcement. In some cases, due to outright resistance. International treaties have often been accused of confronting urgent environmental issues with a “lack of teeth,” not holding perpetrating governments to account. Cross-jurisdictional and cross-border regulations and enforcement of wildlife policy are crucial to ensuring lion conservation is effective in practice.

Joint initiatives, such as that established in 2017 between the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and CITES, known as the African Carnivores Initiative (ACI), are the way forward. ACI’s mandate is to develop concrete, coordinated and synergistic conservation programs, guide policy and organise collaboration with other conservation programmes and relevant organisations.

While governing bodies fuss and fight over ineffective compromises to protect one of Africa’s most ecologically and culturally important species, conservation charities and those that support them must persevere in their work to protect the lion.

Lions’ beneficial impact on ecosystems must not be understated, and all efforts must be made to maintain the long-term viability of populations and resolve lion-human conflict where possible.

Long live the king.

Written by: Linus Hiscox, studying MSc Global Biodiversity Health and Conservation at the University of Bristol and DSWF Programmes and Policy Intern.