for National Geographic News
Africa's wild lion population is in trouble. Scientists do not know how many there were a few decades ago, but today's estimate of fewer than 23,000 on the entire continent is much less than previously thought.
"What is clear is that they are in very serious trouble now," said Laurence Frank, a wildlife specialist at the University of California at Berkeley.
Lions and other large predators like hyenas and leopards are killed by livestock owners who have no patience for the carnivores' appetite for cows, sheep, and goats. Better access to guns and poisons in recent years has increased people's ability to kill wildlife. One by one, the predators are disappearing.
Conservationists are largely unaware of the problem, said Frank, because inside parks lions appear plentiful. But lions need a lot of area for their survival and pay no attention to park boundaries. When lions go outside their protected domain, they become a nuisance to farmers.
"In historic times large carnivores worldwide have been killed off because they eat livestock, not because their habitat has disappeared," said Frank.
With the support of the National Geographic Society Conservation Trust and the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, Frank and a team of wildlife specialists are headed to Kenya's Masailand to get a precise measure of the current lion population and attempt to broker a peace between the predators and livestock owners.
Over the past five years as part of the Laikipia Predator Project in northern Kenya, Frank has studied the conflict between large predators and livestock. He aims to apply concepts developed there to turn around the collapsing lion population in the Masai steppe of Kenya, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Craig Packer, a biologist at the University of Minnesota who specializes in lions, said that Frank's objectives in Africa are noble and needed in order to recover a lion population that is much smaller than people had assumed just a few years ago.
"I've not a clue if it will work, but I think someone should try it," he said. "Laurence has been working on it for some time. He's got as good a chance as anyone to make it work."
Frank describes the people in Kenya's Masailand as traditional pastoralists, who graze cattle, sheep, and goats for their own subsistence on 1,139 square miles (2,950 square kilometers) of group ranch land adjacent to the Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.
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