World Lion Day (WLD), observed on August 10, is a relatively new event that is celebrated across the globe. In celebration of this day, we tell you all about the majestic beasts, where to find them, and how to save them from extinction. By Manas Sen Gupta
World Lion Day is marked to raise awareness about the king of beasts and the efforts undertaken for their conservation. Owing to their courage, intelligence, strength, and magnificence, lions often feature on national flags, and royal symbols and emblems to represent command, power or authority across cultures.
The majestic animal is the second-largest member of the Felidae (cat family), after the tiger. There is only one species of lion in the world whose scientific name is Panthera leo. As per the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species (2016), the Panthera leo has two subspecies: Panthera leo leo and Panthera leo persica, found in Africa and Asia.
Nearly all lions have similar behavioural patterns. They live in social groups known as a ‘pride’. Identified by their distinctive mane, some scientists believe that, during fights, the male’s thick mane protects the neck. Research has further revealed that females are attracted to lions who have thicker manes.
However, while some of subspecies have been categorised as endangered and critically endangered, conservation efforts across Africa have, to some extent, been able to save them from going extinct. From poaching and trophy hunting to the wildlife tourism industry reeling under the impact of COVID-19, the continent has been dealing with major hindrances in its efforts to protect the majestic beasts. Take a look at some of the problems Africa faces and the endeavours undertaken to protect the lions.
Where are lions found and how many exist?
Lions were once found in the wild across south, central and north Africa; southern Europe; west Asia; and western India. Today, they only exist in some parts of Africa and one place in India—the Gir National Park in Gujarat. There are around 20,000 lions in Africa. The numbers of the only lion group outside Africa, the Asiatic lion in Gir, stood at 674 in 2020, marking an increase of 29 per cent since 2015.
The IUCN lists Panthera leo, or the lion in general, as vulnerable, but the West African subpopulation is classified as critically endangered. The Asiatic lion, on the other hand, is listed as endangered.
Barbary lion, one of the most famous lion populations and the largest of all, has been classified as extinct in the wild at its original location, North Africa (from Morocco to Egypt). However, in an interview with Down to Earth (DTE), Simon Black, lecturer in conservation science at Durrell Institute of Conservation & Ecology, School of Anthropology & Conservation, University of Kent, UK, said that the descendants of a group of northern lions of the Barbary line were part of the King of Morocco till 1969. However, they are housed in European zoos and the Moroccan capital, Rabat.
Threats posed to lions
Records show that these mammals have been hunted by monarchs, individuals, and groups since the time when Barbary lions battled gladiators at the Roman Colosseum. The threats have only grown for the big cat. Poachers kill them for body parts such as bones and claws, which is mostly driven by demand in Asian markets like China. In parts of Africa, lions are hunted by locals for sport — a sort of ceremonial rite of passage. Additionally, many rich people trophy hunt lions for fun by paying thousands of dollars as fees to captive breeders. According to animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS, South Africa exported 1,000 lion hunting trophies between 2008 and 2018, most of which were from lions bred in captivity.
Furthermore, illegal bushmeat trade also adversely affects lion population. Animal meat is obtained for commercial sale through methods of poaching wildlife is called bushmeat trade. It not only reduces the predator’s food source but also proves to be fatal for the lion when it unintentionally ends up in traps laid for other species.
Man-animal conflict is another threat caused due to increasing human interference in wildlife areas. Due to the rise in human settlements, the lion’s natural habitat is being turned into agricultural lands. This is not only leading them to feed on livestock, but herders, too, are incurring resultant losses. To protect themselves and their livestock, humans resort to the preemptive killings of these mammals.
Climate change is also a major threat. Rise in temperatures have increased incidents of droughts, heatwaves, storms, wildfires and flooding. These are responsible for the destruction of wildlife areas and water sources that lions and their prey depend on. A forced change in the natural order again brings these animals in conflict with humans.
According to Panthera, an organisation devoted to the conservation of all of the world’s cat species, there are only six protected areas where lions number more than 1,000, while there are 60 others where the situation seem grim. Further, the NGO notes that there are only 28 African countries where lions exist today, and they live under threat in almost all. Tanzania and Mozambique, in particular, are countries of concern. TRAFFIC, an international NGO focusing on trade in wild animals and plants, has stated in a study that while both countries have well-run lion programmes in key national parks and conservation areas, poaching, retaliatory killings and illegal trade of lion body parts remain high.
Lion conservation is of top priority for several governments, NGOs, local bodies and communities. From tracking to educating locals, a wide range of efforts are underway to prevent human conflicts with lions, as well as other threats like poaching.
One of the methods used to conserve these beasts is compensating communities for loss of livestock because of lions. Others focus on rewarding communities which show a spike in the number of lions, as a result of incentives against poaching or reduction in retaliatory attacks.
Panthera aims to raise the total lion count to 30,000 by 2030 under the Project Leonardo initiative. Working in 10 African countries and conducting surveys in eight others, Panthera is working with local governments, NGOs and communities to protect lion populations.
Tracking via GPS and VHF collars fitted around lions’ necks is one of the primary methods employed by many conservation groups such as Wildlife Conservation Society, and Living with Lions. The former also works to educate the local population about lions and the need for their conservation.
Campaign Against Canned Hunting fights against South Africa’s notorious trophy hunting practice. In 2014, it organised the ‘March for Lions’ campaign in 62 cities to demand the South African government to outlaw canned hunting—a practice where captive-bred animals are first released in small enclosures and hunted.
Efforts to reintroduce or expand the range of lions are also afoot. DTE’s Black believes that the Barbary lions can be brought back in North Africa’s existing large tracts if efforts are made to restore wild prey species—though themselves endangered—such as Barbary sheep and gazelle.
In August 2020, the Indian government announced Project Lion, an initiative similar to Project Tiger and Project Elephant. Under Project Lion, some lions of Gir will be relocated to other wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in the country to reduce the lion population in Gir. This will be done to ensure development of habitats, engage modern technologies in lion management, and address the issues of disease in these mammals and their associated species.
Risks involved in conservation efforts and other difficulties
Though reintroduction sounds like a great idea, it has its problems. Black told DTE that a “sensitive long-term plan and considerable prior political and community support” is required.
Political support is a major problem, especially in politically volatile nations. Civil unrest is a threat in some African countries, which threatens wildlife as much as it imperils human lives. Funding, too, is another major issue.
But why is the lion integral to the environment and people’s livelihoods?
Besides being an apex predator, the lion is also a keystone species, meaning the entire ecology where the lion lives is dependent on its survival. Apex predators keep the population of their prey in check and thus maintain ecological balance.
According to Lion Alert, studies found that a low lion count resulted in a 200 percent increase in buffalo population. If lions don’t exist, herbivores such as zebras will overrun the grasslands and overpower other herbivores besides becoming a threat to vegetation, resultantly imperilling the livelihood of humans.
Since lions usually prey on the weakest and the oldest in a herbivore group, they help keep the herbivore herds healthy. They can also hunt the biggest and tallest land animals on Earth — elephants, hippopotamuses and giraffes — and ensure stability of the environment, which includes water resources such as those in Gir.
The New Lion Economy, a report released on World Lion Day in 2019, was the first of its kind to look at Africa’s economic development with the conservation of the lions. According to the report “lionscapes”, or landscapes supporting lions, are beneficial to the ecosystem and result in more benefits to humans than that across Africa.
If the lion population is substantial, it indicates that the habitat — savannah and miombo — is intact, leading to climate stabilisation, reduction in weather-related disasters and major contributions to food and water security. All of these result in the safeguarding of commercial interests as well as subsistence.
Since 2005, the habitat in Maasai Mara has doubled, owing to an arrangement between the Maasai landowners and private conservancies. The Maasai rent their land to the conservancies. Moreover, they neither settle nor graze their cattle on such lands. Each landowner also earns around USD 220 (roughly INR 16,320) per month on average.
How awareness drives and tourism are contributing to conservation efforts
The New Lion Economy stated that a healthy lion population leads to a rise in tourism — a sector extremely crucial to the GDPs of many African countries. For instance, the world-famous Masai Mara is an important source of revenue for Kenya drawing lakhs of visitors every year before the pandemic. It is a critical part of the country’s tourism sector, which employs two million people and contributes 10 per cent to the GDP.
One of the best examples of how travel companies can contribute towards conservation is the 2015 initiative by luxury travel company &Beyond. It has joined hands with non-profit parks management organisation African Parks for a lion relocation project in Rwanda. &Beyond has donated five lionesses from the Phinda Private Game Reserve to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park.
The 1990s civil unrest in Rwanda had led to the extinction of lions in the country. To prepare for the relocation, African Parks helped the Rwandan government with effective park management, including measures to reduce poaching and create awareness drives among communities about the need for lions. Besides the Rwanda initiative, &Beyond has been at the forefront of lion conservation in South Africa.
Spread in an area of 28,555 hectares, the &Beyond Phinda Game Reserve is home to the cheetah, the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) and 436 species of birds in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. Lions were introduced here in 1992 and 1993. Their numbers grew and supported lion populations in other parks.
The travel company will mark the anniversary of the translocation in 2022 with an itinerary from October 5-14 that will allow visitors to see conservation efforts first-hand at both, Phinda and Akagera.
Additionally, on the occasion of World Lion Day this year, &Beyond will be bringing a panel of wildlife experts for a live discussion on lion conservation.