Lions and People Must Learn to Get Along, Experts Say

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
May 3, 2006
The king of beasts may soon be dethroned, as conflicts between African
lions and humans contribute to the big cats' population decline.

Now, to improve the lions' lot, conservationists are trying to rekindle an age-old aspect of life on the continent, when lions and people lived relatively peaceably side by side.

The effort will be tough, researchers say, but it is the best way of preventing the iconic species from becoming even more threatened.

"Africans know how to live together with lions—they have been doing so for a very long time," James Murombedzi told a workshop held earlier this year to consider the lions' plight.

Based in Harare, Zimbabwe, Murombedzi is the regional director for southern Africa for the World Conservation Union (IUCN) based in Switzerland.

IUCN and the Bronx, New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society convened the workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, following a contentious conference in Thailand last year.

At that event officials from Kenya (see map) had to back down in the face of fierce opposition from other African countries when the Kenyans proposed that lions be given more protection.

The suggested changes would have slapped tough restrictions on commercial trade in lions and their parts, most notably trophies from safari hunting.

Cramped Cats

IUCN data show that lion numbers have remained relatively stable inside game reserves.

Currently between 23,000 and 39,000 of the big cats roam wild, according to official estimates (kids feature: lion fun facts).

The trouble is in nonprotected lands, which encompass about half of the species' range. This is where the lions' decline has been the biggest.

Overall the cats' population is estimated to have declined by 30 to 50 percent over the past 20 years.

The African lion is classified as vulnerable on the 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (Read "Endangered Species List Expands to 16,000.")

In West Africa there are now thought to be fewer than 1,500 lions left, meeting the Red List criteria for "regionally endangered."

Kristin Nowell of IUCN's cat-specialist group says in western and central Africa lions have lost some 80 to 90 percent of their historic range.

Gus Mills, a senior researcher with South Africa National Parks, says that the main trouble for the lions is that their roaming area has become so cramped.

"We are going to have to find ways of expanding their living room," he said.

"The only way is to identify areas surrounding wildlife reserves where it will be possible for people and lions to coexist, and then to work at ways of bringing this about.

"There cannot be hard and fast rules, because circumstances differ from place to place and country to country. But where possible, we must see if we cannot get a more mutually beneficial relationship going between lions and people," Mills said.

Lion Safety

The key to success, Mills says, would be to help communities see lions not as a liability but as something that can secure an income in the form, for example, of ecotourism or sustainable hunting practices.

He cautions that people will have to learn safety precautions, such as to put their livestock inside enclosures at night.

Mills also says that a managed plan for killing lions that become a danger to people or regularly attack livestock is better than indiscriminate hunting or poisoning.

But some experts fear it may no longer be possible to get lion-friendly projects going in densely populated areas, such as those adjoining South Africa's Kruger National Park.

Southern and eastern Africa are home to the biggest lion population, with between 21,000 and 35,000 of the animals.

In southern Tanzania (see map) more than a hundred people are attacked by lions every year.

And in the area surrounding Nairobi National Park in Kenya farmers seeking revenge for livestock attacks have killed an estimated 40 lions over the past four years.

Mills says another option is to look at creating corridors between protected lands as a way of expanding the animals' ranges.

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, now in the process of being formed, would link the Kruger park with Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park and Mozambique's Limpopo Park.

Such a project would allow animals, including the lions, to expand their range and use traditional migratory routes that are now blocked by fences.

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