African Lions The Hunter or the Hunted?
The population of wild African lions has declined from several hundred thousand a century ago to fewer than 20,000 today. This decline is largely due to the spread of the human population across the African continent, causing an increase in competition for land, food, and other resources – a competition, which, unfortunately, the lion has been losing. The sale of lions has also become more common. Breeders buy lions from people who capture them from the wild, in order to encourage diversity in their gene pools, and later sell those lions into the canned hunting industry. In addition, the demand for lion bones and bodies for their use in Asian tea and medicine and for display as “trophies,” respectively, grows every day. As a result of all these threats, efforts have been made in order to prevent the further decline of the species, including the placement of the African lion on the endangered species list.
The Lion: Is it still Africa’s Pride?
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Infographic by Nikela Volunteer Anneth Moran
Facts about the African lion
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African lions are generally found in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in some areas of eastern and southern Africa. They occupy habitats such as open woodlands and grasslands. Historically, lions ranged from northern Africa through southwest Asia, west into Europe and east into India. Lions disappeared from most southwest Asian countries within the last 150 years, became extinct in North Africa before the 1940s and in Europe almost 2,000 years ago, and only remains in a single, isolated subpopulation in India in the Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.
Lion coats comprise a range of colors, from yellow to light brown to tan. Males are distinguished from females by their larger size and mane that surrounds their head and extends down to their chest.
As carnivores at the top of the food chain, lions consume a wide variety of prey, although they prefer hoofed animals such as wildebeest, zebra, and antelope. However, they will also hunt smaller prey like hares, birds, and reptiles and will even attack larger prey like elephants when food is scarce. Some rangers even venture to say that lion prides ‘specialize’ in one species or another.
Behavior and social groups
As the only felines that live in social groups, lions reside in family units called prides, consisting of many females, their cubs, and up to three males. Females stay with their pride as they age, while males leave once they are mature enough to lead their own pride, which they establish by taking over a group headed by another male.
Males defend the territory of their pride by urinating around their domain and by roaring at and chasing away any intruders. Females, on the other hand, do the hunting for the pride, often stalking their prey during nighttime.
Lions are affectionate animals, often showing fondness by showering their companions with licks, purrs, and rubbing while they are resting.
Role in Their Native Ecosystem
Lions are important to their native ecosystem and the decline of the species has a negative impact on it. They play an vital role in the food chain, as lions and hyenas account for approximately 85% of hunts on large herbivores such as zebras, wildebeest and buffalo. Lions also have special significance as the only predators on the savanna with the ability to kill Africa’s largest herbivores, such as elephants and giraffes.
As apex predators, they regulate populations of dominant herbivore species that would otherwise overwhelm food resources and out-compete other animals. This reduces the risk of other species’ extinction by competition and lack of food, and maintains the region’s biodiversity. They also serve as a disease control by hunting and removing sick animals from the herd. This keeps those populations healthy and strong and prevents disease from spreading throughout the population.
In addition, lions serve as a population control for other, smaller predators like baboons. Without lions, smaller carnivores tend to reproduce and multiply, which can cause problems for farmers and villagers, as well as spread disease.
The lion population is estimated to be fewer than 20,000. Over the past 21 years, or three lion generations, the species has experienced a decline of approximately 42%, according to the IUCN. In addition, lion populations in Uganda have declined by 30% in the past decade. Overall, the lion population has been reduced by half since the early 1950s.
The major threats to lions are habitat loss, prey depletion, trophy hunting and arbitrary killing to protect life and livestock. Human growth is taking more and more of the lions’ habitat, and that of their prey. Because of this, they are forced to be closer to humans, which leads to conflict.
These apex predators can cause serious livestock casualties and financial losses to farmers, resulting in the persecution of the lions on farmland. In addition, populations of the lion’s main prey, large herbivore, are also threatened by human growth. Lion population trends tend to mirror those of its natural prey, so it declines as it’s prey declines.
Moreover, lions are killed for various purposes beyond livestock management. They are poached for their parts in medicines, teas, and more. Trophy hunting also occurs in several sub-Saharan African countries and may have contributed to population declines in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
The African lion is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List. Habitat loss from the spread of the human civilization and thus, an increase in competition for resources, has caused the significant decline of the wild population in Africa in the past century. In addition, the sale of wild lions has risen significantly, due to the high demand for lions in breeding and canned hunting industries. Both these industries also fuel the markets for lion bones and bodies for use in Asian tea and medicine and as “trophies.” Despite the placement of the African lion on the endangered species list, these practices grow increasingly popular and common, putting lions further and further in danger every day.
Policy, Law and Conservation Efforts
Since 1975, the African lion has been included in CITES Appendix II and the Endangered Asiatic Lion subspecies in CITES Appendix I. In Africa, lions are an extremely popular tourist attraction that generates revenue for the countries and their parks. This provides a strong incentive for conservation efforts and other protections for these species. Regional conservation strategies have been developed for the lion in west and central Africa, as well as eastern and southern Africa. These strategies set out priorities and actions on national, community and landscape levels to improve the lion’s status and management.
Global actions have been taken as well, including the creation of the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, a voluntary coalition of nonprofit organizations, foundations, companies and media interests that work closely with the U.S. government to reduce the purchase and sale of illegal wildlife and wildlife products. In addition, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Global Anti-Poaching Act, which raises penalties for wildlife traffickers, putting them on the same level as weapons and drug smuggling, and aims to ‘name and shame’ big poacher countries.
Contributed by Nikela Volunteer Mikaela Rakos
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