For generations, the Lion has been used as a symbol of power, courage, nobility, and pride by different cultures, traditions, and religions who view it as majestic, regal, protector, king, warrior, and leader. With their stereotypical ferocious appearance yet a pride-driven spirit, sporting teams, countries and community centers alike use lions as metaphors. They also appear in some family crests and national flags. The lion has been used to represent Kenya’s patriotism on its Coat of Arms. Unfortunately, the dwindling figures of lions are appalling, and there are ongoing projects to find out the causes.
According to Dr. John Waithaka, the Chair of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Board of Trustees and Director of Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC), Kenya is losing 100 lions per year with the current lion population being estimated at less than 2,000. Dr. Waithaka attributes the decline to various factors. He says:
Loss of habitat and biodiversity due to corruption, climate change, poverty and increased human population pose the greatest threat to conservation of wildlife, protected areas and the country’s ecosystem."
The lion population in Africa has been on the decline in the last 100 year with the lion population in Africa declining by 96.5 percent. In 1900, the lion population in Africa was about one million and by the 1940s, the numbers had dropped to 500,000. In 1975, the continent had 200,000 lions, but in 1990 there were just 100,000. More disturbing is that about 10 years later, the population had declined drastically to only 35,000. Today there are about 20,000, and that number is continuing to drop.
One of the more in-depth studies published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that lions are continuing to decline in West and Central Africa, where there is a 50 percent chance that these populations will be halved in the next two decades.
But even in East African countries such as Kenya, a historical stronghold for lions the lion has become an endangered species. The study, which analyzed the results of 47 individual studies of distinct populations, estimates there’s a 36 percent chance lion numbers in East Africa will decline by 50 percent by 2035.
Hans Bauer, one of the study's co-authors and a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford observes that in the vast majority of their former range, which encompassed most of Africa, lions are already gone. The decline of lions in so many places now suggests that they, as a whole, no longer play the same ecological role—apex predator—that they once did. Bauer says:
We have known for a long time that lions are declining, but this is not just about less lions; it is about lions no longer playing a keystone role in functioning ecosystems. Lion trends are indicative of a deeper crisis that will eventually affect other less sensitive species.
According to Dr. Waithaka:
As it is, they may also disappear in East Africa if governments do not take stern action to stop the decimation of wildlife and protected area.
The astonishing decline has been unabated in the past two decades. In 2002, for example, there were 2,749 lions but their population declined to 2,280 by 2004, and then to 1,970 in 2008, according to IUCN.
"Lions have a special place in Kenyans' livelihood and conservation efforts," said Mr. Paul Udoto, Kenya Wildlife Service Spokesman. Mr. Udoto added:
Other than being the symbol for national strength, they are among the Big Five, a major attraction for visitors to Kenya. The trend of lion population decline is disturbing and every effort needs to be made to ensure that Kenya either stabilises its population at the current population of 2,000 lions or increases the numbers to an ecologically acceptable level."
Kenya Wildlife Service notes that drought has pushed lions closer to waterholes near to human settlements, which themselves are increasing at "very high rates".
In many areas, though, populations won’t just decrease but disappear. “These declines are precipitous and will likely lead to functional extinction of many lion populations outside southern Africa,” says Matt Hayward, a researcher at England’s Bangor University.
Lions are primarily threatened by human population growth, and the expansion of farming and ranching, says scientist and conservationist Laurence Frank, project director of Living With Lions, a Kenya-based conservation organisation. Frank observes:
There is no doubt that the numbers are in freefall. I'd be surprised if they even last as long as 20 years. When I first came here 30 years ago, you would always hear lions roaring across the rangelands at night and see their tracks in the morning. Now that is very rare. The reason is simple, lions eat cattle, and as the numbers of people grow, the numbers of cows increase. Alongside that there are ever more efficient ways, including poisoning, to kill lions."
Mohawk and Cecil are two of the most infamous lions that are now powerful symbols for the plight of lions in Africa. Both Lions were felled by Rangers and poachers bullets respectively. Mohawk, one of Kenya's famous lions, had a shock of hair surrounding his head that made him quite noticeable and a favourite among tourists. With a dark brown mane which depicted his unconquerable soul and a powerful stride that oozed strength, there was no doubt that Cecil was the King of his territory. Cecil and Mohawk were indeed the kings of the jungle in every way.
With human population increase and expansion of ranching that encroach into wildlife spaces, it is not surprising that lions start eating herds of cattle and consequently poisoning and reprisal killings of lions become more common. More humans also mean fewer large herbivores like water buffalo, and thus less food for lions. The decline of lions is mirrored by a decline in these large vegetarians.
The study found that Lions are worse off in West and Central Africa, where herbivore numbers have declined by 85 percent between 1970 and 2005. That decline is 28 percent in southern Africa, where lions are doing better.
In fact, lion populations are actually increasing in four southern African countries: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. That’s because the governments of these countries are spending money to thwart poaching, and or the animals are protected in large fenced reserves, Frank says. If the decline of lions is to be thwarted elsewhere, it will take this kind of (expensive) approach, he adds.
“African wildlife is going down the toilet very rapidly, and only spending a great deal of money and effort is going to turn that around,” Frank says. Part of the fight-back will include tracking lions fitted with radio collars in the Amboseli area in southern Kenya, close to the border with Tanzania.
Wildlife officials in Tanzania face similar challenges in protecting their lions, but there is far less human encroachment on the animals' habitat there than in Kenya. Quick and decisive actions need to be taken to create public awareness as well as formulation of national guidelines on lion conservation and management in the long term otherwise the deaths of Cecil and Mohawk will all be for nothing.
Photo Credit: Cecil the lion has become a powerful symbol for the plight of African lions since he was killed by a hunter in July 2015 [Andrew Loveridge/Reuters]