Opinion: Imagining a World Without Lions

A conservationist argues that it could happen in our lifetimes.

A lioness in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve rests atop a small mound.

Editor's note: Dereck Joubert is an award-winning filmmaker and conservationist; he and his wife Beverly are National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence and co-founders of the Big Cats Initiative.

There will never be a time that we will be able to forget lions. Walk ten blocks in most of the world's cities and you'll see a dozen lion statues, small or large, icons of the most symbolic animal on Earth. (See an interactive experience on the Serengeti lion.)

Some of the more famous ones reside in front of the New York Public Library and in Trafalgar Square. On a recent walk around the four-block radius of National Geographic's Washington headquarters, I counted 26.

But will real lions survive in the wild beyond our generation? As someone who has studied the animals for 30 years, I'm not sure. (Read "The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion" in National Geographic magazine.)

In the 1950s, when I was born, the best estimate of the world's lion population was 450,000. Today, studies point to 20,000 to 30,000 lions remaining. We've lost 95 percent of lions in the last 50 years.

The slaughter has a variety of causes: trophy hunting, habitat loss, communities killing lions in retaliation for cattle losses, and poaching, which fuels a bone market in the East built around bogus medicines and special-occasion wine. (Related: "Restaurant's Lion Tacos Renew Exotic Meat Debate.")

The Power of Lions Up Close

Recently, I was kneeling outside my vehicle here—a battered, doorless Land Cruiser—with my camera on the ground, filming a low-angle shot for a National Geographic Channel film about young nomadic male lions. I miscalculated.

Two very large lionesses walked much closer to me than I expected, and at three meters they rippled with power and predatory presence. Massive shoulders moved under tawny skin, ready to grab hold of a passing zebra or buffalo.

One looked at me and stopped, her eyes burning with alertness. I imagined her brain pondering: "Is this creature benign or threatening?" (Read "Living With Lions" in National Geographic magazine.)

After a long minute, the lioness paced on after the buffalo she'd been following. Despite my lingering fear, I was filled with hope and amazement.

Even with their thinning numbers, it's nonetheless something of a miracle that despite human firepower—from spears to carbofuran poison (a crop pesticide) to .375 rifles to wire snares—these murderous animals have managed to endure.

We have somehow tolerated them so far. Can we build on that tolerance to bring their numbers back and ensure their survival?

Surprising Reasons to Save Them

There are many reasons to save lions—ecological, financial, spiritual, and logical. That's beyond the basic argument that we don't have the right to exterminate them.

Ecologically, lions play a pivotal role in the ecosystem.

Without lions to prey on them, for example, the buffalo, hyenas, and other mid-range predators on the plains where I live would have soaring populations. Buffalo would become dominant and, absent the lion threat, would be content to stay in one place, making them more vulnerable to existence-threatening parasites. Predators keep prey vital.

Financially, ecotourism generates around $80 billion a year for Africa, which feeds into local communities and economies. Few people I know would bother coming on safari if they knew they would not see the king of the beasts.

As those tourism dollars diminished, so too would the will of the people to protect and grow national parks to preserve wildlife. Poor, sick people are not conservationists.

Without lions, expect increased poverty, poor health, poaching, desperation, and greater pressure on Western countries to support Africa via aid programs. So saving these animals should be a global mandate.

A Loss Too Terrible to Contemplate

Many clans in Africa's Zulu, Shangaan, and Matabele tribes are called animal names like Ngonyama (lion) or Nglovo (elephant) and traditionally don't eat the meat of their namesakes. The system has created strong bonds between animals and people, with human caretakers protecting species against misuse. It has also empowered the tribes to be connected to their animal, their ancestors, and their land.

Mostly it has reinforced that they are, as are we all, an integral part of the planet. An absence of that understanding, in a world in which most people are born in urban locales that are divorced from nature, helps explain so many of our environmental problems.

Earlier this month, at the year's halfway mark, I assembled a new batch of statistics from various sources (WWF, South African National Parks, Elephants Without Borders) on the disappearance of iconic wildlife. We are losing one rhino every 8.5 hours, five elephants every hour, and five lions a day to poaching, conflict, hunting, and human encroachment.

If we don't secure lions, elephants, and rhinos, conservation in Africa will be over. Unless something changes dramatically, we have 10 to 15 years to do it.

A world without the distant roar of lions at dawn as the mists start to lift is too terrible to contemplate. The race between education and extinction is going to be tight, but I hold that thought in mind from being on foot with the two majestic lionesses.

As a species, we do sometimes show tolerance and thought about how to do the right thing. Usually that happens with a movement, a single instance of outrage, or a child asking a difficult question: When will the last lion be gone?