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Big Cats - Lions

World Lion Day is on August 10th 2021


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Did you know Lions can sleep up to 20 hours a day? Lions are the second largest of the big cats after Tigers but are generally regarded as the king of the beasts because of their distinctive mane and roar. Once widespread throughout Africa, Europe and as far away as Siberia, Alaska and Mexico, Lions are now found mainly in central and southern Africa and one national park in India. Since the 1980s their numbers have fallen from around 100,000 to around 30,000, with only around 400 left in West Africa. Since 2017 only two species are recognised -the African Lion (Panthera leo leo) found in India and Western Africa  and (Panthera leo melanochaita) which lives in eastern and southern Africa. In 2015 there were only 1400 Panthera Leo Leo left. For interesting facts about Lions see here or here

When humans move into Lion Habitat

The main threats to Lions are habitat loss and loss of prey due to human encroachment, hunting and poaching and disease. In Kenya around 100 lions are killed every year because reduced prey and habitat leads them to attack domestic animals and human settlements – an encounter which the Lion usually loses. It was estimated that there would be no Lions left in Kenya by 2020. Farmland and former grazing lands pose an additional risk to Lions because many also die from diseases such as bovine tuberculosis, distemper and feline immunodeficiency disease.

Hunting and poaching

A further 600 per year are lost to trophy hunting in South Africa alone. Because trophy hunters go after the largest males, this not only upsets the balance within and between prides, but weakens the pride generally and makes it more prone to disease. The cubs of the previous top male are often killed by the now lesser males which take over. Canned hunting is offered as a substitute for wild hunting yet the breeding stock is often taken from the wild and “if cubs are desired by the breeding farms, they often have to kill the adult members of the pride in order to capture the cubs. This can damage and destroy entire prides.” Read more here and sign the petition. Trust me, there is no pride in killing something which can't get away.

Public anger over the killing of  Cecil the Lion in 2015 drew attention to the plight of  Lions and led to the African Lion (P. leo leo) being listed as endangered by the UN and the eastern and southern African Lion being listed as threatened. This meant that trophies and live specimens of the African Lion could no longer be imported into the USA unless it was to facilitate preservation of the the species. Other Lions could only be imported if the importer could show that they had been legally obtained and permits in the USA or elsewhere could be refused if a hunter had any wildlife offences recorded against his name as the dentist involved in the shooting of Cecil did. Other countries such as France and the Netherlands have banned their import since 2016, and both Switzerland and the UK have similar bans on the table.

 If Lions were put on the endangered list, as they should be, then their pelts could not be brought into the USA, the largest market for this type of ‘Sport” and these farms would quickly disappear. 



"Without trophy hunting there would be no conservation," say game ranch owners


In consequence of the new laws, proponents of big game hunting have formed themselves into an international lobby group and via series of videos seek to demonstrate that without such game ranches, the funds and the impetus for the conservation of big game would disappear from many African countries because without the licence fees and habitat management, there would be no money to manage National Parks which are for the most part far outnumbered by private game reserves.

Namibia for example, has around 50% of its land under some type of conservation, yet over half of that is in private game reserves. Zambia has 30% of the country reserved in 19 National Parks and 86 private game reserves. Seventeen per cent of  Botswana is formally protected but 37% is in private game reserves. Game ranch owners say that they receive no government funding or help from NGOs for this work and that it brings in much of the revenue received by national governments. While photo safaris are growing in popularity, they account for only 7% of the tourist dollar.

As well as ‘protecting’ more animals and providing work for local communities they say that the foreign exchange which they generate helps to  build schools and hospitals. By banning the import of souvenirs and hunting, they accuse 'bleeding hearts' in Western countries of putting the lives of animals ahead of the lives and livelihoods of Africans themselves. According to the hunting lobby, which sees game animals merely as a 'natural resource' to be exploited, without their income and their management, large areas would quickly be overrun by poachers and game reserves would be converted to less lucrative and more damaging activities such cattle, sheep and goat grazing. Having been hard hit by the pandemic, local people are also hunting game in the reserves or resorting to subsistence farming, thus also destroying wildlife habit. Hunting devotees also claim that without regular culling, some game reserves such as Bubye Conservancy in Zimbabwe are already experiencing a loss of biodiversity because of an excess of big game.


Counter arguments and possible solutions

To tackle the last argument first, scientists say that the loss of species in Bubye Conservancy in is not due to having too many big game animals but because of a prolonged drought which has reduced available feed.

Secondly, there is no evidence that game ranches reduce poaching. Indeed it was increasing well before the pandemic. Detailed analysis of 150 seizures of lions and their parts since 2015 in the UK showed that they could not be attributed to changes in the law or better law enforcement. British hunters had killed at least 60 Lions in the same period and the EU generally remains a major source of customers. 

While the pandemic has revealed the extent to which African countries have relied on this type of tourism for their GDP - up to 80% in some cases according to game ranchers, this is a problem also being faced by other countries such as Nepal which have overly relied on tourism, particularly single source tourism, often to the detriment of the attraction which people have come to see. This merely highlights the importance of having a far more diverse economy so that it is less vulnerable to downturns.

Fortunately Cecil’s death also sparked a rash of donations for conservation and research. With Lions having lost 92% of their original habitat and now no longer present in 26 African countries, perhaps it's time to buy back the ranches and game licences so that habitat integrity and wildlife corridors can be maintained.

It seems to me that if the world wants Lions to remain in the wild, then the world must fund conservation either via the UN, through NGOs or private donations. That way local people displaced through the loss of game ranching could be employed in conservation and management instead, including the owners of such ranches. Independent assessments would be required to ensure that Lions are in good health and numbers aren’t declining, rather than hearing only from those who stand to gain. Despite what the ranchers say about benefiting local economies and national development, Non - government organisations such as African Impact says, only around 3% of that money trickles down to villagers.

Local abundance vs. Global Scarcity

If independent assessment does indeed show that from time to time some Lions may need culling, that should be an issue for Africans. Whether they allow hunting by Africans to prevent hunger or auction to the highest bidder will depend on the circumstances. We are currently facing a similar dilemma with respect to culling of  kangaroos. Much as I hate the slaughter, excessive land clearing, loss of natural habitat and drought have led to the situation where kangaroos converge on food crops, or crowd other species out. Culling in those circumstances is kinder than letting animals starve to death. Unlike Lions however, kangaroos are not yet in danger of dying out and many Australians are nevertheless petitioning authorities to halt the cull until the outcome of a report on the status of our wildlife since the bushfires is known. 

Trophy hunting as a mass tourism activity has only been around since the 1980’s. There is no reason to protect trophy hunting at the expense of an entire species. If you needed another reason to end it, Climate Change, to which air travel contributes around 5%, also affects Lion populations in Africa, drying out grasslands and reducing prey.

The Good News

In better news, evidence of a lost pride has been found in a remote region near the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. Because of difficulty of access researchers are as yet unsure of the number, but there could be as many as 200. In August 2018 Singapore Airlines the largest carrier of Lion bone between Africa and Asia, banned further shipments.

STOPPRESS: As of May 2021, the South African government has banned  its controversial captive lion industry. According to environment minister Barbara Creecy this was done partly because of “the risk that trade in lion parts poses to stimulating poaching and illegal trade,”but also because it damaged South Africa's ecotourism image. (reported in Big Cat Rescue)

Ways to help  

In addition to major organisations such as Big Cats Wild Cats mentioned previously, see those specifically for Lions mentioned on their website by clicking here.

African Impact has a number of short and long volunteer programs running in several African countries where you can help with monitoring, training and community development. See for example the one for Kenya below. They would no doubt welcome donations too, as would any of the other groups mentioned.


 There is also a petition calling for the banning the importation of Giraffes and other exotic animals and their parts into Taiwan. 

Next: Cheetahs, Big Cats in Captivity