two lionesses

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Saving Simba


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. 

four lionesses

Poisoned Predators

The Maasai Mara Reserve, located in southwest Kenya, is one of the most popular wildlife attractions in all of Africa. Lions are one of the largest draws for tourists, enthralling visitors with their sociality, grace, and hunting prowess. The Marsh Pride, made famous from the BBC’s Big Cat Diary television series, was well known in the region, as safari guides could usually locate them for their clients. Bibi, a 17-year old female, was especially popular from her TV days. But on December 5, 2015, the pride had been poisoned; at least two of the lions died, including the revered Bibi, and field veterinarians closely monitored the rest of the group. The big cats had ingested meat laced with the pesticide carbofuran by Maasai herdsmen in retaliation for killing two of their cows, which were grazing inside the reserve. As the deadly toxin moved into the food chain, at least six white-backed vultures died from the tainted meat and it is likely hyenas, jackals, and other small carnivores will fall prey as well. While this act of poisoning is an outrage on many levels, what is needed more than blame and punishment are long-term solutions to complex land use issues that minimize human-animal conflict.

lioness among brush

Vicious Cycle

For centuries, wildlife, livestock, and humans have foraged an alliance, sharing the vast land of Maasai Mara. But as human populations have increased, the need for protected areas to protect animals for tourism has increased and that has created a conundrum for conservation. As Anne Kent Taylor, a conservationist at the Maasai Mara, explained in a National Geographic News article: “Maasai landowners have seen their grazing lands restricted by land privatization and by agreements with wildlife conservancies, which have a strong record of successful wildlife conservation. In exchange for a considerable stipend, the Maasai agree to sell or set aside some their land for wildlife conservation and tourism—no grazing allowed. They then use the money to buy more cows, but they have less land for those cows to graze on. The resulting overgrazing means that the herders need somewhere else for their cattle.”

She goes on to say that by day, thousands of free-range cattle graze near the reserve and by the cover of night, “the cattle are herded into the reserve where the grazing is better” though it is still illegal. Not only are the cattle easy targets for nocturnal predators like lions, but the livestock leaves behind dung and dust in an overgrazed landscape in their wake. 

lioness rolling in the dirt

Mama Simba

Elsewhere in Kenya, Ewaso Lions launched its Mama Simba program in 2013, engaging about 300 Samburu women in lion conservation. With beaming smiles and ornate attire, a core team of 10 women share peer-to-peer with other Samburu women the importance of lions to maintain a healthy ecosystem in which their communities can thrive. The women participate in conservation training and litter removal campaigns and report on lion sightings and conflict issues. In exchange, the Ewaso Lions organization provides weekly schooling to provide education opportunities they never had before, as well as training in new beaded art craft, so communities can diversify their income.

In 2016, the Mama Simba program will grow beyond the Sasaab village, reaching communities in four new locations in the Westgate Community in northern Kenya. Women here are eager to be a part of Mama Simba! “We hope that this training, in conjunction with the topics covered under the education initiative, will enable the women to collect information following incidents of livestock depredation and ensure they are able to effectively deal with any resulting conflict, and to advise others of methods to reduce and minimize depredation in the future,” explains the Ewaso Lions website. While Ewaso Lions has engaged warriors, elders, and children in conservation efforts in the past, local women had been overlooked. Now they are being trained in lion ecology, different predator tracks, and the importance of conservation, and they are spreading the word. Mama Simba is a key resource of committed conservationists that San Diego Zoo Global is honored to support. 

a group of lions, 3 snoozing, two nuzzling

Why Now?

The Samburu people live out in the bush, in the “wild” landscapes of Kenya. Children play and guide cattle through prime lion habitat at no small personal risk. Members of Mama Simba exhibit great courage and restraint in protecting their local wildlife while raising their families. One Mama Simba shared a traditional legend that explains, roughly translated, the project:

In the beginning of time, all the animals lived in the house. But the wild animals acted up and got kicked out. Now it is our job to take care of them and bring them back into the house. 

two lions

Lionized Cats

For centuries, the mighty lion has been celebrated—lionized—for its courage, valor, and strength. Ice Age hunters depicted a pride of lionesses hunting together; later it was the lioness that was represented as the protector and chief warrior of a culture. In many ancient cultures, lions were demigods, symbols of nobility and righteousness, both venerated and feared. As the only social, group-living, cooperatively hunting big cat, both male and female lions have been honored in statues, coats of arms, and many types of artwork. The Great Sphinx of Giza is a lioness with a human head, while massively maned male lions are highlighted in everything from logos and sports teams to movies and toys. The blockbuster animated Disney film The Lion King introduced a new generation to the Swahili word for lion: simba.

But even as lions have been padding across movie screens and adorning children’s pajamas, these apex predators have been under siege. Adding to the “normal” threats of habitat loss and disease is the unnatural selection force of inappropriate trophy hunting, which takes out the “biggest, baddest, best-looking” males, often in their reproductive prime, which then disrupts (or destroys) the dynamics of his entire pride, as well as diminishing the gene pool for that population. According to the Washington Post, trophy hunters legally kill at least 600 lions annually, with 64-percent of the “trophies” exported to the US. The notion that money—and there’s lots of it!—from trophy hunting goes directly to local communities and conservation efforts is dubious at best. It is a rich man’s sport with lion hunts being the most sought after, even at $24,000 to $71,000 for a trophy. 

two lions on a rock

On the Hunt

The path to lion hunting is well trod. Even as the San Diego Zoo was founded in 1916, lions were flourishing across Africa, probably numbering over half a million. It was a different time, and even so-called nature lovers showed their appreciation for wildlife by killing or capturing it. Even Theodore Roosevelt, an early conservation leader, shot and collected hundreds of specimens of many African species during a yearlong African safari in 1909. But as the human population increased, so did the number and reach of human settlements and the human ability to use increased firepower, generating a slow, steady burn of wildlife populations. Inappropriate trophy hunting is one more step in the wrong direction. 

close up of lioness


Keystone species, like lions, are critical to the health and diversity of their ecosystems. As a top predator, the lion’s impact on the landscape is disproportionate to their abundance (or absence). The elimination of top predators destabilizes ecosystems, setting off far-reaching and often unpredictable chain reactions all the way down the trophic ladder. Trophic cascade pathways have been widely studied. One well-known example is the local extinction of the gray wolf in Yellowstone. The loss of this apex predator led to a sudden increase in the numbers of elk, who then shifted their behavior to a more concentrated and uninterrupted feeding pattern, leading to near disappearance of major native vegetation types, which then impacted smaller animals. Once the wolves were restored to the area, elk numbers were kept in check and over-browsed vegetation and other native species could recover.

Lions serve a similar role in their habitats, keeping hoofed animal populations of zebra, buffalo, giraffe, and antelope in check and on the move. “Without lions as the apex predator, the entire ecosystem is thrown out of balance, causing a cascading effect resulting in numerous other extinctions or invasions of nonnative species,” explained Carmi Penny, San Diego Zoo Global curator of mammals. People who live in and near lion habitat, who often compete with lions as their grazing livestock pushes out other prey species, will feel the crash of lion populations first; wild animals left unchecked will overgraze on vegetation, leaving little for livestock, resulting in an economic crash for the local people. 

Adult male and female lions at the Safari Park


People who subsist on the meat and milk of their cattle, sheep, or goats can be understandably irate when a lion takes one of their animals. Lions gorge on the carcass, go rest and digest, and sometimes return to the kill for a second serving. Knowing this eating pattern, some herders will poison the leftovers with a cheap and lethal chemical called Furadan, which contaminates the ecosystem. Not only will it kill the returning lions, but also other creatures like vultures and hyenas that may feed on the carcass. 

two lions licking bone


San Diego Zoo has a long and storied history with lions. In fact, the Zoo began with a roar! Dr. Harry Wegeforth, a San Diego physician, was driving back to his medical office with his brother, Paul, when he heard a lion’s thundering rumble coming from Balboa Park. This large cat was part of the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition, and it inspired Dr. Harry to start a zoo. He began with a collection of ragtag “leftovers” from the international event—a row of cages containing wolves, coyotes, bears, monkeys, and the highly vocal lions. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, our roar is more far reaching, as we resolutely support in-country, boots-on-the-ground, peer-to-peer conservation work in Kenya.

Lion in early San Diego Zoo pit enclosure


You can help by supporting San Diego Zoo Global in preventing the extinction of this apex predator by helping us to support community conservancies in one of the range countries of lions: Kenya. You can help by not participating in inappropriate trophy hunting. You can help by traveling to range countries to see wildlife, like lions, in action. You can help by learning about animals and conservation efforts. 

close up of two lionesses
rhino mom and baby


Although the Zoo and Safari Park are temporarily closed, our team of dedicated specialists continue to care for countless animals and plants that depend on us each and every day.

Your continued support is critical to the wildlife in our care and vital to endangered species worldwide.