By: Razanne Chatila
We have all seen the Disney classic, The Lion King, which depicts the story of a young lion prince, Simba, in the savannahs of Africa. Now imagine Simba’s grandchildren. Are they going to be able to roam around the great savannahs like their parents or grandparents? The reality is probably not especially that bright for 75 percent of their habitat in the last 50 years has been lost or destroyed according to a recent study, as humans overtake their land and the lion population dwindles.
Researchers at Duke University, including Stuart Pimm–prominent conservationist and Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University, warn that the number of lions across the continent have dropped to as few as 32,000 from 100,000 . Populations in West Africa are under incredible pressure according to the study published this week in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
“The word savannah conjures up visions of vast open plains teeming with wildlife. But the reality is that massive land-use change and deforestation, driven by rapid human population growth, has fragmented or degraded much of the original savannah. Only 25 percent remains of an ecosystem that once was a third larger than the continental United States,” said Pimm, “Given that many now live in small, isolated populations, this trend will continue. The situation in West Africa is particularly dire, with no large population remaining and lions now absent from many of the region’s national parks.
In the new study, funded by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative long-term effort to halt the decline of big cats in the wild through assessment efforts, on-the-ground conservation projects, education and a global public-awareness campaign; Pimm and his colleagues used high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Earth, alongside human population density data and estimates of local lion population to map areas still favorable to the lions’ survival. They were able to identify 67 isolated areas of savannah that are still suitable with low man impacts and densities. A good sign for the big cats. However, only 10 of these spots were estimated to be strongholds where lions have an excellent chance of survival. Many of these are located within national parks and none are located in West Africa, especially due to the rapid doubling in the human populations in the last 30 years.
“Giving these lions something of a fighting chance will require substantial increases in effort. The next 10 years are decisive for this region, not just for lions but for biodiversity, since lions are indicators of ecosystem health,” said Andrew Jacobson, a member of Pimm’s lab.
Five countries in Africa have likely lost their lions since a 2002 study was run, the report said. Only nine countries contain at least 1,000 lions, while Tanzania alone has more than 40 per cent of the continent’s lions. International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also state “the causes of this reduction are not well understood, are unlikely to have ceased, and may not be reversible.” Nevertheless, The African Lion & Environmental Research Trust (ALERT), founded by Andrew Conolly in Zimbabwe in 2005, believes there are viable solutions to help save the lions. The answer, he says, is the reintroduction of wild borne cubs from rehabilitated captive bred lions. Although there are many complications and potential dangers that come with reintroduction of lions into the wild, The African Lion Rehabilitation & Release into the Wild Program operated by ALERT is a four stage program designed to elimate these past problems.
The first stage is where young cubs are taken on walks to build their confidence in the African bush, allowing them to practice their natural hunting instincts. In stage two, the lions have the chance to develop a “natural pride social system” in a minimum 500 acre enclosure. There is plenty of game for them to hunt and all human contact is removed. To advance past this stage the lions must meet two criteria: that of being socially stable and self-sustaining. Once they complete this, they move to stage three, which is a minimum 10,000-acre managed ecosystem with the same conditions as stage two with plenty of prey plus competitive species such as hyena. Stage four comes with the cubs born in stage three being raised by the pride within a natural environment and with their natural avoidance behavior of humans intact, can then be released to repopulate Africa’s national parks and conservancies. So far the program has only reached stage two, with the first release at the Dollar Block reserve in Zimbabwe. The released lions have successfully hunted a range of species from impala to adult giraffe, a remarkable achievement for the captive lions.
Saving the king of beasts is not going to be an easy one-time solution. It is going to need a multi-facet, multinational approach. Their population is dwindling at an alarming rate and if measures are not taken, the king will roam no more.
This post reflects the author’s personal opinions, not the opinions of Arizona Model United Nations.