The forgotten plight of the lion

african lion

There are just 3,000 more lions than there are rhinos. Is it time to put in place better conservation strategies?

The lion is an iconic part of the landscape in Africa. It’s one of the Big Five and draws in tourists. But has the plight of the lion been overshadowed by conservation concerns of other species. could it be that the lion is so iconic that we forget that it is in a pretty precarious position.

Mention the rhino and people automatically know that it is under threat and needs a lot of protection but the same attitude does not appear to be foremost when the lion is mentioned. But population numbers of rhino and lions are not too dissimilar. so why is the lion not attracting the high-profile campaigning that rhinos get.

In Africa there is estimated to be 20,17o white rhino in the wild. That figure was estimated for the end of 2010 and is the latest figure for white rhinos published by the IUCN Red List. It’s officially recorded as being Near Threatened.

The lion population in Africa may not be all that different. While there has not been the same amount of resources dedicated to counting lions than there has been for rhino one of the latest estimates of lion numbers in 2004 by The African Lion Working Group, a network of specialists affiliated with the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group, put the number at just 23,000 with the estimate range being between 16,900 and 30,000 individuals (Bauer and Van Der Merwe 2004). . This is just 3,000 more than the rhino. The IUCN has the lion classed as Vulnerable.

The rhino population is well understood because of a major long-term conservation effort. The southern white rhino of Africa fell to as low as 50 individuals before they got protection and numbers have eventually grown to the 20,000 of today. Surely the african lion does not need to fall to such low numbers before real action is taken to protect this king of the savannah?

While the national parks for lions appear to be a relatively safe haven for lions because of the tourist dollar that they bring in there are concerns that once the animals stray outside the park they are becoming an increasing target for locals.

Farmers who keep livestock on land close to the parks can see relatively substantial losses of a few hundred dollars a year because of lions taking stock. While USD200 or USD300 may not seem a lot for a small-scale subsistence farmer in Africa it can be a substantial loss of income for his family. Farmers will often leave out poisoned meat for lions to scavenge on. But some simple farm management practices can help tackle the losses. Improving livestock husbandry will be essential as human and lions compete for the resources outside of protected national parks and conservancies.

Another impact on the lion population is the hunt. Many countries in Africa still operate game hunts to attract income to support conservation and local villages. But there are concerns that the number of lions allowed to be hunted each year in many countries are higher than the population can support.

The impact of hunting wildlife can be so great that it can start to impact on the tourist industry in general as we saw last week when Botswana announced that it was to ban hunting in the country.

There are other reasons to fear for the long-term survival of the lion population such as disease, inbreeding and competition with man for prey but the two biggest threats – hunting and farmer conflict can be managed and reduced.

There are just 3,000 individuals difference between the population of rhinos and lions. It really is time for the profile of the lion to be raised and for more conservation funds and legislation to be directed at the species. At the very least we need a proper international census of the african lion undertaken so we known just how many there are left in the wild.