DAILY MAVERICK WEBINAR
Top scientists make $3bn plea to rich nations to help conserve Africa’s lions
Facing the grim reality of potential extinction, Africa’s iconic but underexposed wild lion populations are crying out for help — and for investors with deep, patient pockets.
The cost of conserving the African lion may exceed a staggering $3-billion a year, according to new landmark findings.
Jointly led by Oxford University and the Johannesburg-based Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a Nature-published study delves into the multifaceted challenges — social, political and ecological — that confront free-roaming lions. Co-produced by more than 30 authors, it is the first Africa-wide attempt to understand that threat triangle, and offer an investment framework for wild lions living across the continent.
In a Daily Maverick webinar on Thursday, the EWT’s co-lead author Sam Nicholson presented fresh approaches to conservation investments, but acknowledged some of the statistics were grim.
These big cats had vanished from 92% of their historic territories, representing one of the most significant range contractions of any species, said Nicholson, a senior scientist at the EWT’s Carnivore Conservation Programme.
From north Africa to sub-Saharan terrains and into the Middle East, the lion’s roar has fallen silent in many regions. Today, their pawprints can be traced in about 25 countries — thus, less than 10% of their former habitat.
About 62 geographical populations were identified by the study, of which 42% had barely 50 or fewer lions. Only 11% — a mere seven groups — had populations exceeding a thousand or more.
The study relied heavily on insights captured in the African Lion Database, which Nicholson manages on behalf of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The database charts the ebbs and flows of lion numbers, also shedding light on human-caused deaths. Using this, the scientists could monitor and identify populations in decline and establish why the numbers were falling.
Encroachment of human civilisation, human-wildlife conflict, loss of prey and habitat, indirect poaching for body parts and the dangers of violent extremism and war had exacerbated lions’ plummeting numbers.
“This research is the first of its kind in bringing together both ecological and socio-political factors into a single index to evaluate potential conservation investments for African lions,” Nicholson stressed, highlighting past difficulties in conducting such a study, given that scientists typically specialised in one domain.
However, this investigation uniquely combined insights from multiple scientific disciplines, recognising that areas with high corruption or poverty often struggled to devote resources to conservation.
“This is critical,” she pointed out, “because the challenges faced by lions have both ecological and socio-political roots.”
Most ecologically fragile: 10 scouts, one motorbike
Across the continent, diverse patterns observed in lion populations were as striking as the apparent contradictions driving their successes and setbacks.
Africa’s most ecologically fragile population was in Maze National Park, Ethiopia. The park, a 200km2 area southwest of Addis Ababa, was home to just nine known lions, said Nicholson. The park’s challenges were compounded by limited resources; “fairly” high cattle density that likely fuelled human-wildlife conflict; and the isolation of this lion population from others.
“There’s one warden for the whole area and he has 10 scouts who share one motorbike,” Nicholson explained.
By contrast, Tanzania held fast as Africa’s largest stronghold, sustaining a population that surpassed 8,000.
Intriguingly, despite being the least ecologically fragile, Tanzania also had the highest human density within lion areas.
“Humans and animals overlapping doesn’t necessarily mean there’s always going to be conflict,” she observed. “With the right mitigation measures and with the right community engagement projects, human-wildlife conflict can be decreased.”
Hope from South Africa, South Sudan, Mozambique
Immense pressures on the borders of South African reserves notwithstanding, the country’s wild lions emerged as an unlikely beacon of hope, Nicholson noted.
She said the country’s roughly 3,000 lions were stable, if not increasing, and accounted for about 13% of Africa’s population. Kruger National Park provided a refuge to one of the least socio-politically fragile populations in Africa.
In places like Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park and Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, conservation initiatives were bearing fruit, offering hope for lion numbers to expand.
Possibly the study’s most surprising, even poignant, revelation came from war-riven South Sudan.
South Sudan’s Boma National Park had a lone lion population that was Africa’s most socio-politically fragile, but the least ecologically fragile due to low human and cattle densities over a large, 20,000km2 area, and connections to Ethiopian populations.
Here the message from the data is clear: do not give up on populations just because they seem doomed by war.
The study’s grand vision to preserve wild lions in both fenced and unfenced areas across Africa carries a revised hefty price tag that could exceed US$3-billion annually — based on yearly running costs of about $500 per km2 for fenced lions; and $200-plus per km2 for unfenced lions.
This updates a $1-billion figure from a 2013 study, which assessed the cost to maintain lions within protected areas. Additionally, a 2018 study cited by Nicholson and colleagues, noted that “nearly all protected areas with lions are inadequately funded”, with deficits totalling roughly up to $2-billion.
Alarmingly, highest deficits were observed in nations with the largest protected areas with lions, such as Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.
While Nicholson pointed out that funding mattered in all areas hosting lions, she urged funders to temper time frames and other expectations in regions where corruption and political instability remained rife.
As she highlighted, certain destinations, such as Yankari Game Reserve in Nigeria, presented unique challenges. High political instability, corruption and conflict made conservation more difficult and resource-intensive here.
Nicholson’s counsel? Even with considerable investment, backers needed to be prepared to play a long, lateral game.
“Financial investment may not yield the same results or the same outcomes and it’s likely going to be spent very differently — maybe addressing certain socio-political [aspects] that reduce the population’s fragility,” she advised.
The king’s predicament: declining in poorest regions
“Outside conservation circles, people are very surprised to hear that lions are declining and that some populations have gone extinct,” she remarked. While the plight of lions may be overshadowed by the rhino’s more widely publicised dire straits, both keystone species teeter at a nearly identical count of around 23,000.
Yet, comparing lion numbers with another endangered species, she offered perspective with a sliver of optimism: “There are 6,000 mature wild dogs left in Africa — I’m sure wild dog biologists would be absolutely thrilled if they had 23,000 mature individuals.”
When asked about the most effective intervention for the continent’s approximately 23,000 lions, Nicholson emphasised the necessity of a $3-billion investment. This crucial funding, she insisted, would help fortify the species’ habitats and support focused conservation strategies that cater to the unique requirements of each population.
However, most of these habitats lay in the poorest nations — the bottom quarter of global wealth rankings.
Lions attacked and ate livestock, and even people — leading the authors to challenge affluent nations to take action.
“Asking some of the world’s poorest people to maintain dangerous predators in their community is tremendously inequal and likely not sustainable,” they argued. “This research underscores the moral responsibility of wealthier nations to contribute more significantly to lion conservation and will help identify some of the factors which need to be considered to make that contribution more effective.” DM
Read the full study — “Socio-political and ecological fragility of threatened, free-ranging African lion populations” by Sam Nicholson of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, Amy Dickman of Oxford University and others in Communications Earth & Environment, a Nature journal.
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