So you want to see a lion, do you?
Of all the big cats, the lion is the easiest to encounter on safari. While leopards remain elusive and cheetahs live at low density, lions roar often in the night, males march across the plains, lords of all they survey, and prides routinely pass the daylight hours if not in full view then in easily accessible pools of shade. Lions are cats of few mysteries, one of scant species in the wild that can afford to be visible and at rest. And yet, lions are in trouble.


The mane event

By Brian Jackman

Nothing prepares you for the moment when you meet your first lion. In my case, it was 40 years ago. I’d flown down to the Mara at the end of the rains when the grass was still green and tall, rippling like the sea all the way to the horizon. It was early on this cold, bright May morning and we spotted a huge pride male silhouetted on a termite mound with the morning dew around him.

The sun was barely above the horizon, and with every roar his breath condensed like smoke from a dragon’s nostrils. Since then I have lost count of the lions I have seen, but from that day on they have continued to walk through my life and my dreams.

Who can fail to be moved by their hypnotic presence? Even in repose lions exude an aura of imminent drama, of latent power barely suppressed, and the certainty of unimaginable violence seldom far away. You don’t even have to set eyes on them to feel the tension in the air. All it needs are fresh pugmarks in the dust to set the nerves jangling with excitement.

Of all the lions I have seen, one in particular stands out. We found him lying beside a half-eaten gazelle near Naabi Hill in the southern Serengeti. He was clearly a nomad, an old warrior cast out from his pride, and was now living by robbery and intimidation. (I later discovered he had earlier stolen the dead gazelle, having chased away the two Naabi Hill lionesses that had killed it).

His broad muzzle bore the scars of many battles. Maybe twelve times in his life he might have witnessed the annual arrival of the great migration on these short grass plains. Now his race was almost run. But he was still the epitome of what a lion should be, with a black mane falling like a rug around his shoulders, and for now and a little while longer he was still lord of this land.

Long since perfected in evolutionary terms, lions are the apex predators of a parallel universe far older than ours. But today, tragically, these glorious carnivores are in decline almost everywhere except in the Serengeti. Dereck Joubert, the distinguished wildlife film maker who knows more about these great cats than almost anyone, reckons there are no more than 20,000 lions left on earth. Yet, miraculously, the magic they exert upon the human psyche remains as powerful as ever. Go and see them while stocks last.


What of the future?

By Anthony Ham

No one quite knows how many lions once roamed Africa. Estimating lion populations is, even now, an inexact science and ‘guesstimation’ is how one prominent lion expert described the process to Travel Africa.

As far as we can tell, there were, perhaps, close to a million lions in Africa when the first Europeans arrived to colonise the continent. With somewhat greater certainty we can say that barely three per cent of those remain.

Over the past decade, continent-wide surveys of lion populations have come up with figures that range from 23,000 to 39,000. The most recent, published in 2012, suggested a figure of between 32,000 and 35,000, but this came with an important caveat: only 24,000 of these lived in what they described as strongholds. The rest were, for the most part, in elevated danger of local extinction. National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative goes even further, suggesting that as few as 20,000 lions remain.

If even 20,000 sounds like a lot of lions (there are just 3200 tigers and fewer than 880 mountain gorillas), such apparent abundance, like the lion’s visibility on safari, masks the species’ vulnerability. That’s because a significant proportion of Africa’s lions live in small populations surrounded by vast and ever-growing seas of humanity. Many of these populations are not viable beyond the short-term.

And numbers alone tell only half the story. According to Dr Luke Hunter, president of cat conservation NGO Panthera, more useful questions ask how much good lion habitat has disappeared and how much remains, and also whether the trajectory – both overall and within individual populations – is positive or negative.

The answers make for grim reading: lions have disappeared from more than 80 per cent of their historical African range and have become extinct in 26 countries. And while not everyone might agree, one of the main spokespersons for the Big Cat Initiative, film-maker Dereck Joubert, warns that, based on trends in lion numbers over the past century, lions could disappear from the wild in the next ten to fifteen years.

Threats to the lion
The most obvious threat to lions comes from a loss of habitat. By one estimate, 75 per cent of Africa’s savannah – the most reliable lion habitat – has disappeared since 1960.

At that time there were 285 million people in Africa. Just 50 years later, there are 175 million in Nigeria alone, and more than one billion people now live on the continent. Burgeoning populations, of course, require more land, leading to large-scale clearing of forests and woodlands for grazing, and the conversion of open grasslands to both commercial and subsistence farms.

The increasing proximity of lions, human beings and their livestock also invariably results in conflict that can in many cases be  reduced to a simple equation: lions kill livestock and livestock owners kill lions in retaliation.

“In concert with human-caused loss of habitat and prey, conflict with people is now the gravest threat to the lion,” believes Dr Hunter. “The issue is chiefly one of space. Supporting large populations of big cats requires vast areas with healthy populations of their large herbivore prey. But intact wilderness is under intense pressure from a rapidly growing human population – the fastest of any continent – and their herds of livestock. As cattle, sheep and goats replace the lion’s natural prey, conflict between people and predator becomes inevitable. Once lions move into farming landscapes they are hunted relentlessly.”

The use of lion parts in traditional medicines is another increasingly important threat to the species, particularly if lion parts come to replace those of tigers in the Asian market.

Regions and strongholds
In 2012 a cast of eminent cat conservationists set out to map the decline in Africa’s savannahs and lions over the past fifty years. In the resulting article, entitled ‘The size of savannah Africa: a lion’s (Panthera leo) view’, they concluded that just ten populations lived in “lion strongholds”. Six were in southern Africa and four in East Africa.

To qualify as a stronghold, an area had to include a minimum of 500 lions, lie within protected areas and have a stable or increasing population. While the figure of 500 represented half of what Panthera had always held to be the bare minimum necessary to secure a lion population’s future, these ten populations represent the ark, if you like, for the future of the species. A further seven areas across Africa were identified as “potential strongholds”.

East Africa
Although home to only four of these strongholds, East Africa is the African lion’s true heartland, with an estimated 19,000 individuals. Between thirty and forty per cent of the continent’s lions reside in Tanzania alone, which is home to the three largest populations in Africa – Selous (over 7500), Ruaha-Rungwa (around 3800) and, shared with Kenya, the Serengeti-Masai Mara (3700).

Other important populations include Kenya’s Tsavo (820, although the results of a 2013 census may change this figure) and Tanzania’s Tarangire (730). Elsewhere, Laikipia-Samburu is a fascinating case study of how private conservancies have contributed to stabilising one of Kenya’s most important lion populations.

Southern Africa
With six strongholds and an estimated 10,000 individuals, southern Africa is the lion’s other bulwark against extinction. The largest populations are the Great Limpopo ecosystem in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe (around 2300), Okavango-Hwange in Botswana and Zimbabwe (2300) and Niassa in Mozambique (1575).

These are complemented by important populations that include Kgalagadi in Botswana and South Africa (800), Mid-Zambezi in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe (750); Luangwa in Zambia (575), Etosha in Namibia (450) and Kafue in Zambia (380).

Add to these the possibilities of Angola (which may be home to more than 1900 lions) and Botswana’s vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve (for which no numbers are available but which Panthera’s Dr Hunter describes as ‘a globally significant lion population’), and southern Africa’s role in safeguarding the future of the species would appear to stretch far beyond numbers.

Central Africa
Important lion populations may also persist in the far east of the Central African Republic, in southeastern Chad and southwestern Sudan. But the region’s chronic instability means that Central Africa’s lions face a difficult future.

North and West Africa
Lions are extinct in North Africa, and a soon-to-be-published study suggests that the lion now survives in just four isolated West African populations: the W-Arly-Pendjari complex (Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger), Niokolo-Koba (Senegal) and two small Nigerian populations at Yankari National Park and Kainji Lake.

“In 2006 we thought there were 21 lion populations in West Africa,” says Dr Hunter. “Now there are just four.” If true, the West African lion may soon be reclassified as critically endangered.


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Success stories and solutions

Lion Guardians
In the communal Maasai lands surrounding Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, where an estimated 60 to 75 lions share the land with 35,000 Maasai and their more than two million head of livestock, the Lion Guardian scheme appropriates key elements of Maasai tradition by taking former lion killers and transforming them into Lion Guardians.

Their job is to protect both lions and livestock by keeping them apart, thereby reducing conflict between the Maasai and the lions that live among them. The project, which began in 2007 at a time when lions and livestock were being killed in record numbers, has been an unqualified success: in the five years to 2012, just three lions were killed in areas where Lion Guardians were operating, compared with 90 in neighbouring areas.

The concept is a classic conservation strategy – turning poacher into game-keeper – which Panthera is now helping to seed across Africa, in communities adjacent to Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.

“The Lion Guardian model cannot save Africa’s lions on its own,” says Dr Hunter. “The reality is there is no single silver bullet. But the basic pillars – employing local people to monitor carnivores and help their own community reduce the real or perceived conflict with them – has terrific potential. The key to succeeding will be tailoring it to the huge variety of cultures across Africa that conflict with lions – and there are a lot of those.”

The payment of compensation to herders who have lost livestock to lions and other predators is one of the longest-standing approaches to softening the conflict. The basic concept is not without its critics. Compensation does little to prevent poor herding practices, is hugely expensive and can be extremely difficult to stop once it has begun.

And yet, there are schemes – particularly those that lean more towards insurance instead of outright compensation – that take these criticisms into account. Under the Shorobe Livestock Insurance Initiative, for example, run by the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust north of Maun, close to Botswana’s Okavango Delta, herders who take measures to minimise the risk to their livestock pay lower premiums.

Whatever the model, in areas of high conflict and where no other measures are in place, the payment of money to prevent retaliatory attacks on lions can prove to be the difference between their survival or local extinction.

Buffer zones
Few national parks and protected areas enclose entire ecosystems. Many, perhaps even most, national parks are surrounded by human populations pushed right up against the boundaries. It is around these peripheries that most human-wildlife conflict takes place.

One solution, advocated by Dereck Joubert of National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative, is to surround these protected areas with buffer zones. Or, as he puts it, “we as conservationists and as tourism developers identify vulnerable but viable parts of these unique and beautiful ecosystems that stick out or surround the parks, and enter into lease agreements with communities to form a community-conservation partnership for tourism that protects the boundaries of the most valuable big cat landscapes.”

Future debates


The role of tourism
Africa’s megafauna would not have survived this long were it not for tourism. Tourism brings in much-needed foreign exchange – Kenya, for example, receives around US$3.5 billion a year from its tourism industry – and by providing employment for local communities, it places a value on wildlife for local people and gives them a reason to protect lions and other wildlife.

There are, however, limits. Mass tourism places a sometimes intolerable strain on finite local resources and runs the risk of loving to death the very ecosystems they come to see.

Botswana’s approach – keeping numbers down by putting prices up, or, to put it another way, discouraging mass tourism and pitching instead for the luxury end of the market – contrasts sharply with government policy elsewhere, and the question of where the balance should lie is one of the most important conservation questions of our time.

One of the fiercest current debates in lion conservation relates to fences. One recent study found that fenced reserves are much more effective at maintaining high lion densities, and that the cost of doing so is considerably less than in unfenced areas.

The report, co-authored by a Who’s Who of eminent lion scientists, concluded that “nearly half the unfenced lion populations may decline to near extinction over the next 20-40 years.” Crucially, the report concluded that “every fenced population is expected to remain close to its carrying capacity for the next century”.

On the other side, a similarly formidable array of lion talent disagrees, arguing that fences fragment ecosystems, isolate lion populations and ultimately work against the protection of truly wild lion populations.

A role for trophy hunting?
Few issues divide lion conservationists quite like the question of hunting. Opponents of hunting describe as folly any suggestion that killing lions, which are already at risk, can help to protect the species.

Despite a personal aversion to hunting, however, other conservationists argue that well-managed hunting can have a limited place in conserving populations.

The central tenet of this argument is that high hunting premiums place a substantial monetary value on lions for local communities, thereby giving them a powerful reason to protect cats and their habitats, particularly where these habitats are not suitable for photographic tourism.

Hunting was banned in Kenya in 1977, and in Botswana last year, but remains an important industry in Tanzania, South Africa and elsewhere.



The expert view

Travel Africa talked to Dereck Joubert, award-winning film-maker, member of the Big Cat Initiative and co-founder of Great Plains Conservation

Which governments are getting it right and why?
Botswana, obviously, as a first pick. I think that Tanzania has also done a lot right, even though it has a view on consumptive use (hunting) I don’t share. But we have to understand and appreciate that any culture and government that has protected 1.5 million wildebeest moving across a few hundred miles of open land for generations of politicians has to be applauded.

Gabon has made some very exciting conservation moves, first by declaring 13 new national parks a decade ago, and then empowering people like Mike Fay to help run those parks.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the lions of the Okavango Delta?
Probably that they play such a dominant role in the ecosystem in a way that affects prey population dynamics, movement, balance, and a range of things that can alter a habitat completely. The resulting argument is that without lions we could see not just a changed dynamic but a collapsed ecosystem.

Have you noticed a decline in lion numbers in the areas where you work?
Yes. I have seen whole populations hunted to the brink of extinction. Selinda, for example, used to be like Fifth Avenue at lunchtime for lions. Then the hunters hunted it terribly. To this day we struggle to build lion numbers there.

When I was filming there I was following 69 lions in the area. Today in the same area we have 20. In the Masai Mara, one of the most dense lion habitats in Africa, we are seeing smaller prides covering the same area. Amboseli, massive declines. Everywhere I go, I hear of fewer lions.

Can tourism play a positive role?
In Selinda, we converted a hunting block into photographic tourism. I was there recently and in three days saw four wild dog dens, eight different leopards, 20 lions, roan, sable, zebras, wildebeest, over 2000 elephants and about 4000 buffalo. I didn’t do that; tourism did.

When we took it over 80 per cent of the revenues came from hunting, and on day one we shut that down and went into the red. Today revenues allow us to tender for new areas like this and slowly we piece together a mosaic of land that we can allow to rehabilitate itself and make it all better. Ecotourism presently provides US$80 billion a year in revenues to Africa.

Not every operator is perfect, but it is important to know that a trip to Africa is a positive thing for the planet.

Does it surprise you that lions are still with us?
I am often mystified (in a good way) that we have any wildlife and certainly any lions left at all. They are largely in conflict with us, eat our livestock and our crops, and infect our safe, easy lives... and yet these huge, potentially man-eating, predators from a distant era still roam the earth, a planet swarming with 7 billion people. It is a miracle.


The best places to see lions:

Dereck Joubert, Film-maker and National Geographic Explorer
1. Duba Plains, Botswana
2. Mara Plains and Olare Motogogi Conservancy  adjoining  the Maasai Mara Reserve, Kenya
3. Katavi National Park, Tanzania
4. Skeleton Coast, Namibia
5. Serengeti Moru kopjes, Tanzania

Dr Luke Hunter, President of Panthera
1. Etosha National Park, Namibia
2. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Botswana and South Africa
3. Parc National du W, Benin
4. Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
5. Niassa National Park, Mozambique


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