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No Silver Bullet Will Save the African Lion

Lions and zebra in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater

Lions and zebra in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater

It has been just over a year since the senseless killing of Cecil the Lion ignited a worldwide firestorm of outrage over trophy hunting. The tragic event spurred conversation and debate in many public spheres and became one of the most widespread conservation stories in history. It was a defining moment for not only the scientific and conservation communities, but for people from all walks of life.

The public uproar over Cecil’s death brought much-needed attention to the plight of the African lion. As a result, several countries blocked or tightened restrictions on the import of animal trophies and a handful of major airlines banned their transport. In a significant step forward, lions were officially listed under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in December of 2015.

While the increased focus on lions is encouraging, the fact remains that the bigger picture of lion conservation is often misunderstood. Trophy hunting — while an important part of that picture — causes a relatively small number of lion deaths each year. If this iconic species is to continue roaming freely across Africa, other critical concerns must be urgently brought to the forefront of the global conversation with the same intensity. It is time for us to raise the flag for all of the threats facing lions today. By doing so, we can take the next essential steps toward saving this vital species — without which the wilds of Africa will be forever altered.

Recent estimates report that lion populations in Africa have plummeted to between 32,000 and 20,000 individuals, a 43 percent decline over the past two decades and a nearly 90 percent decline over the last century. Meanwhile, Africa’s human population is growing rapidly and is expected to more than triple by the year 2100. As the wilderness collides with growing human settlements, critical wildlife habitats are experiencing unprecedented fragmentation and degradation. In addition to human encroachment, vital rangelands are disappearing due to increased grazing pressure, water scarcity as a result of climate change, unregulated land conversion, poor farming practices, and deforestation. This loss of habitat not only represents a big problem for lions, but also for their prey species, many of whose numbers are also in a rapid freefall.

As their prey numbers decline and human settlements grow closer, lions are increasingly turning to the livestock of local pastoralists for an easy meal. The loss of a cow is viewed as a personal attack, and people often retaliate against lions by shooting, spearing, or poisoning them. This type of human-wildlife conflict is currently one of the leading causes of lion mortality in Africa, but we aren’t seeing the subject make many headlines.

In addition, more and more lions and their prey are becoming victims of the poacher’s snare, destined for the bushmeat trade or left undetected to die agonizing and needless deaths. The unsustainable bushmeat trade is emptying the forests and savannas of animals, thereby limiting future opportunities for surrounding communities to benefit from their wildlife. Another incentive for poachers appears to be a burgeoning demand for lion bones, skins, and other body parts. We must devote our collective attention to understanding and stopping this emerging threat before there is another elephant in the room, sadly literally.

The above scenarios appear to paint a bleak picture for the future of lions in Africa. How do we then move forward with hope for this species? It is clear that there is no silver bullet. When we step away from our own priorities and emphases, all aspects of lion conservation become essential and must be nuanced to the ecological and cultural context where individuals and organizations are working.

For the African People & Wildlife Fund, this context means working in close partnership with rural communities who live alongside one of the most endangered lion populations in all of Tanzania. Together, we are working to protect lions and the vast landscapes they depend on for their survival. Through an ongoing and open dialogue with community members, we collectively determine what issues are most critical to their livelihoods and then work to ensure that their concerns are addressed.

One of the main problems they seek to solve is that of human-wildlife conflict. Among the five programmatic areas where we work in Northern Tanzania, we see nuances in the situation on the ground. For example, some communities experience higher predation levels at the boma — or homestead — while others see higher levels at pasture. For this reason, our engagement and solutions have to be specifically tied to the on-the-ground context and must be able to evolve according to community feedback.

In Tanzania, as with many other places, we see all threats to lion conservation being expressed, albeit with different intensities in different places. Accordingly, there is a pressing need for strategically coordinated efforts to strengthen protected area networks, reduce human-wildlife conflict, restore habitats, increase prey species populations, regulate trophy hunting, and combat the lion bone and bushmeat trades in lion territories in a manner that is proportionate to the level at which these threats are expressed. To save this species, we must prioritize the lion as we define and promote our organizational objectives whenever possible.

A year ago, Cecil’s untimely death taught us that the world cares about what happens to lions. It showed us that the global public has a powerful voice when it comes to protecting the future of a species in peril. We must now tap into that power in order to galvanize an even larger discussion that includes the full picture of lion conservation. And, it is critical that we not only emphasize the problems facing lions, but also the solutions on the ground that are helping to save them. Such comprehensive dialogues are imperative not only for the future of lions but for other endangered species in Africa and around the world.