This story appears in the August 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Lions are complicated creatures, magnificent at a distance yet fearsomely inconvenient to the rural peoples whose fate is to live among them. They are lords of the wild savanna but inimical to pastoralism and incompatible with farming. So it’s no wonder their fortunes have trended downward for as long as human civilization has been trending up.
There’s evidence across at least three continents of the lions’ glory days and their decline. Chauvet Cave, in southern France, filled with vivid Paleolithic paintings of wildlife, shows us that lions inhabited Europe along with humans 30 millennia ago; the Book of Daniel suggests that lions lurked at the outskirts of Babylon in the sixth century B.C.; and there are reports of lions surviving in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran until well into the 19th or 20th centuries. Africa alone, during this long ebb, remained the reliable heartland.
But that has changed too. New surveys and estimates suggest that the lion has disappeared from about 80 percent of its African range. No one knows how many lions survive today in Africa—as many as 35,000?—because wild lions are difficult to count. Experts agree, though, that just within recent decades the overall total has declined significantly. The causes are multiple—including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching of lion prey for bush meat, poachers’ snares that catch lions instead, displacement of lion prey by livestock, disease, spearing or poisoning of lions in retaliation for livestock losses and attacks upon humans, ritual killing of lions (notably within the Maasai tradition), and unsustainable trophy hunting for lions, chiefly by affluent Americans.
The new assessments, compiled by scientists from Panthera (an international felid conservation group), Duke University, the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, and elsewhere, indicate that African lions now live in nearly 70 distinct areas (view map), the largest and most secure of which can be considered strongholds. But the smallest contain only tiny populations, isolated, genetically limited, and lacking viability for the long term. In other words, the African lion inhabits an archipelago of insular refuges, and more than a few of those marooned populations may soon go extinct.
What can be done to stanch the losses and reverse the trend? Some experts say we should focus efforts on the strongholds, such as the Serengeti ecosystem (spanning Tanzania to Kenya), the Selous ecosystem (southeastern Tanzania), the Ruaha-Rungwa (western Tanzania), the Okavango-Hwange (Botswana into Zimbabwe), and the Greater Limpopo (at the shared corners of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, including Kruger National Park). Those five ecosystems alone account for roughly half of Africa’s lions, and each contains a genetically viable population. Craig Packer has offered a drastic suggestion for further protecting some strongholds: Fence them, or at least some of their margins. Investing conservation dollars in chain-link and posts, combined with adequate levels of patrolling and repair, he argues, is the best way to limit illegal entry into protected areas by herders, their livestock, and poachers, as well as reckless exit from those areas by lions.
Other experts strongly disagree. In fact, this fencing idea goes against three decades of conservation theory, which stresses the importance of connectedness among habitat patches. Packer knows that, and even he wouldn’t put a fence across any valuable route of wildlife dispersal or migration. But consider, for instance, the western boundary of the Serengeti ecosystem, where the Maswa Game Reserve meets the Sukuma agricultural lands beyond. If you fly over that area at low elevation, you’ll see the boundary as a stark edge, delineated by the slash of a red clay road. East of it lies the rolling green terrain of Maswa, covered with acacia woodlands and lush savanna, a virtual extension of Serengeti National Park. West of the road, in the Sukuma zone, you’ll look down on mile after mile of cotton fields, cornfields, teams of oxen plowing bare dirt, paddies, and brown-and-white cows standing in pens. A fence along that boundary, as Packer asserts, could do no harm and possibly some good. It may be a special case, but it’s enough to open a heated discussion.
Trophy hunting is also controversial. Does it contribute to population declines because of irresponsible overharvesting? Or does it effectively monetize the lion, bringing cash into local and national economies and providing an incentive for habitat protection and sustainable long-term management? The answer depends—on particulars of place, on which lions are targeted (old males or young ones), and on the integrity of management, both by the hunting operator and by the national wildlife agency. Certainly there are abuses—countries in which hunting concessions are granted corruptly, situations in which little or no hunting income reaches the local people who pay the real costs of living amid lions, concessions on which too many lions are killed. But in places such as Maswa Game Reserve—where hunts are scrupulously managed in cooperation with the Friedkin Conservation Fund, an organization that cares more about habitat protection than about revenue—the effect of a ban on hunting would be perverse.
Hunting of captive-bred lions released into fenced areas on private ranches, as now widely practiced in South Africa, raises a whole different set of questions. In a recent year 174 such lion-breeding ranches operated in the country, with a combined stock of more than 3,500 lions. Proponents argue that this industry may contribute to lion conservation by diverting trophy-hunt pressure from wild populations and by maintaining genetic diversity that could be needed later. Others fear it may undercut the economics of lion management in, say, Tanzania, by offering cheaper and easier ways to put a lion head on your rec-room wall.
And then there’s the matter of what happens to the rest of the lion. The export of lion bones from South Africa to Asia, where they are sold as an alternative to tiger bones, constitutes a dangerous trend that surely increases demand.
Bottom line: Lion conservation is an intricate enterprise that must now reach across borders, across oceans, and across disciplines to confront a global market in dreams of the wild.
But conservation begins at home, among people for whom the sublime and terrifying wildness of a lion is no dream. One set of such people are the Maasai who inhabit group ranches bordering Amboseli National Park, on the thornbush plains of southern Kenya. Since 2007 a program there called Lion Guardians has recruited Maasai warriors—young men for whom lion killing has traditionally been part of a rite of passage known as olamayio—to serve instead as lion protectors. These men, paid salaries, trained in radiotelemetry and GPS use, track lions on a daily basis and prevent lion attacks on livestock. The program, small but astute, seems to be succeeding: Lion killings have decreased, and the role of Lion Guardian is now prestigious within those communities.
I spent a day recently with a Lion Guardian named Kamunu, roughly 30 years old, serious and steady, whose dark face tapered to a narrow chin and whose eyes seemed permanently squinted against sentiment and delusion. He wore a beaded necklace, beaded earrings, and a red shuka wrapped around him; a Maasai dagger was sheathed on his belt at one side, a cell phone at the other. Kamunu had personally killed five lions, he told me, all for olamayio, but he didn’t intend to kill any more. He had learned that lions could be more valuable alive—in money from tourism, wages from Lion Guardians, and the food and education such cash could buy for a man’s family.
We walked a long circuit that very hot day, winding through acacia bush, crossing a dry riverbed, Kamunu following lion spoor in the dust and me following him. Probably we traipsed about 16 miles. In the morning we tracked a lone adult, recognizable to Kamunu from its big pug as a certain problematic male. When we met a long line of cows headed for water, their bells clanking, attended by several Maasai boys, Kamunu warned the boys to stay clear of that lion.
Around midday he picked up a different trail, very fresh, left by a female with two cubs. We saw her flattened day bed in the herbage beneath a bush. We traced her sinuous route into a grove of scrubby myrrh trees that grew thicker as we went. Kamunu moved quietly. Finally we stopped. I saw nothing but vegetation and dirt.
They’re very close, he explained. This is a good spot. No livestock nearby. We don’t want to push any closer. We don’t want to disturb them. No, we don’t, I agreed.
“We think they are safe here,” he told me. It’s more than can be said for many African lions, but at that moment, in that place, it was enough.
National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative is dedicated to halting the decline of lions and other big cats around the world. To learn more about the projects we support, visit causeanuproar.org.