- 19-yeard old lion Loonkito was killed in southern Kenya last week
- Africa’s lion population is dwindling, owing to deforestation and frequent attacks by humans over the years
- AI technology may be used to help conserve wildlife on the continent
One of Africa’s—and possibly the world’s—oldest lions has reportedly been speared to death by pastoralists in Olkelunyiet village in southern Kenya.
Loonkito was killed around 9PM EAT on Wednesday in the pastoralists’ attempt to protect their livestock.
The lion was said to be starving and thus desperately searching for prey. It was old and frail and consequently, easily succumbed to the spear wounds it sustained.
Local news reported that no other animal or human was hurt during the brawl, which lasted shorter than 15 minutes.
At 19 years old, Loonkito surpassed the average lifespan of lions in the wild by 6 years.
According to conservation organisation Lion Guardians, Loonkito, “a symbol of resilience and coexistence”, was the oldest male lion in Amboseli National Park’s ecosystem and possibly on the continent.
Loonkito led a large pride of lionesses and cubs until 2017. That year, his brother Ambogga died in a territorial fight while Loonkito himself sustained serious injuries. Subsequently, he retreated into a more solitary life as he struggled to defend his territory.
Just yesterday, 6 lions, also from Amboseli National Park, were speared to death after killing 11 sheep and a dog.
The killings are reminiscent of a similar 2012 incident in which 6 lions were slain in retaliation after killing over 28 livestock.
As a result of the recently concluded drought in Kenya's arid regions, lions are forced to roam far to hunt for prey, since their traditional prey animals are harder to find. This is what led Loonkito and other pride members out of protected areas and ultimately to their death.
The frequent droughts in Kenya in recent times have altogether exacerbated the human-wildlife conflict in the East African nation. It becomes more difficult for the wildlife to hunt and livestock owners stay on guard to protect the few livestock that survived the droughts.
The Forensic Pathology Service and SAPS opened an inquest docket after the victim’s body was handed to them.
Conservationists urge locals to stop killing wildlife, but it is difficult, considering locals have their own livelihoods and food to protect.
Africa’s Dwindling Lion Population
Africa is home to most of the world’s lions, with Kenya housing an estimated 2,500 as of 2021.
There are over 100 lions in Amboseli National Park, one of Kenya’s most popular wildlife parks, alone.
According to Kenya Wildlife Service figures, there were 2,749 lions in Kenya in 2002 and their population dropped to 2,280 by 2004 and today the lion …
Kenya’s East African neighbour Tanzania has three of the five largest lion populations in the world.
Lions are not officially considered endangered species, but the decline in their population still raises concerns amongst conservationists.
There are estimated to be between 23,000 to 39,000 lions in the wild. However, many experts believe the numbers are much less, as 75% of their population is in decline.
In Africa, lion numbers are believed to have declined by more than 40% in the last 3 generations.
The main threats to lions in Africa are killings—either in retaliation or prevention—to protect humans and livestock, and the decreasing availability of natural prey.
The latter threat can be tied to environmental factors like drought, or the expansion of human settlements which forces lions’ natural habitats to shrink.
Another significant threat is the rampant illegal wildlife trade or simply, poaching. The lion bones are often extracted and used in medicine.
Could AI Be the Solution?
A recent report revealed that African conservationists are exploring the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered cameras to help in the protection of endangered forest and savannah elephants.
The cameras were developed in a collaborative effort by Dutch tech startup Hack the Planet and a team of British scientists at Stirling University.
The cameras used satellite technology to detect various animal species and humans in real time and give live alerts to local villages and forest rangers.
They can also be used to monitor conflicts between humans and wildlife as well as poaching.
In March, a pilot test was carried out in Gabon. The technology took more than 800 pictures over 72 days, including 217 photos of elephants.
The AI model boasted of an 82% accuracy in recognising elephants, and rangers received an alert from the system in less than 7 minutes on average—likely slowed by poor internet connectivity.
Elephants are especially of interest to conservationists as the grand animals are victims of ivory poaching, and are now classified as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Gabon, a Central African country, is home to about 60-70% of all African forest elephants, so it was a prime choice for the pilot study.
However, upon further development, perhaps the AI-powered cameras and other AI technology can also be used to aid the conservation of wildlife in other African countries, including Kenya.
Sources: CNN, Washington News, Nation, World Wildlife Fund.