If one decent thing came out of the brutal and inappropriate trophy killing of Cecil the lion in the summer of 2015, it was that the global outrage cast light on the plight of the African lion. Once ranging liberally across the continent and even into the Middle East and India, this iconic big cat has been rapidly declining in range and numbers. Just since the 1980s when there were about 100,000 lions in Africa, that number has been slashed to about 20,000 today. Being the king of the jungle—or savanna—is no easy feat and the relentless growth of human populations has surely taken an additional toll.
Lion populations are in a tailspin due to loss of habitat, loss of prey species, and pesticide use contaminating the food chain, as well as canine distemper and tuberculosis. Additionally, lions are persecuted and poisoned for preying on livestock, and inappropriately hunted by wealthy trophy seekers. Some insist human-lion conflict is the biggest threat to these iconic cats.
A single pride of lions can require a hunting territory of 8 to 100 miles, depending on the density of prey animals. Human villages, farmland, and grazing land push the golden predators into sub-optimal landscapes and can isolate populations, thus reducing genetic variability. With these pressures in mind, the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared in 2015 that the lions have “undergone a reduction of approximately 42 percent over the past 21 years” (only about three lion generations), nudging them from a vulnerable listing to the endangered species list.
San Diego Zoo Global supports lion conservation by providing funds to two organizations in Africa that work to protect habitat and wildlife: Ewaso Lions and the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). Efforts toward saving lions (and other wildlife) must respect and utilize the needs of local people, so “community conservancies” are being created, which benefit both humans and animals. These organizations work to educate the pastoral communities that lions are a critical component to the ecosystem. They are also helping to develop programs to better control and protect livestock (not such tempting targets at night), and community understanding that an occasional loss of a cow or goat is acceptable because of the greater good to the community by having lions present.
The mission of NRT is to develop resilient community conservancies that transform lives, secure peace, and conserve natural resources. While human-lion conflict may occur in areas where agriculture and livestock compete with lions, education and community support prevail, making healthier, stronger ecosystems. That is a strategy we are pleased to support!