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African big cats could be extinct soon

The animal kingdom is about to lose its king. The lion, incarnating strength and majesty, indeed, is endangered: Africa will have lost half of its lions until 2035 if nothing changes. Hunts, the decline of the savannah, Increasing scarcity of preys and conflicts with the local communities are the principal reasons for this decline. Exposed to the same threat, leopards and cheetahs risk disappearing as well.

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Half of the lions will have disappeared in 20 years

Present on the whole continent in the past, the lion has lost 85% of its territory and 80% of its population in the last 50 years.

23 000 wild lions: a lowering of 80% in 50 years.

While 500 000 lions were wandering in Africa a century ago, They were only 200 000 50 years ago. In 2012, a study announced that between 32 000 and 35 000 remained. Other estimations say only 23 000, making a lowering of 80% of the population. There would be only 60 troops remained on the continent, and half of them would count less than 50 individuals.

Only 7 countries – South Africa, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – house more than 1 000 lions while the species went completely extinct in 26 other countries. Tanzania, where lives 40% of the remained lions, looks like an asylum country.

ONGs are particularly concerned about the decline of the West African lions, only counting for 1% of the continent’s population. Only two big populations survive in natural reserves. We tallied 350 grown up individuals in the WAP (W-Arly-Pendjari) complex in the border of Bénin, Niger and Burkina Faso, and 250 other individuals in the Camerounian Bénoué national park.

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Only 10 000 wild lions in 2035

We expect the African lion’s population to drop to half of what it is in the next 20 years. They would only be 10 000 if nothing is done to reverse the trend. The species could simply go extinct in 2050.

In West Africa, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) put the king of animals in the red list of the “in critical danger of extinction”. In Central and East Africa, it is considered vulnerable.

However, being on the top of the food chain as an apex predator, the lion has a huge part n maintaining the African ecosystem’s balance. Being on a hunting field, it regulates other predator’s population such as hyenas and jackals, as well as its prey’s population (elephants, buffalos, zebras, etc. ) which it forces to migrate.

The imminent extinction of the West African big cats, in particular, is a tragic loss for the genetic diversity of this species since their gene pool is very different from the East African lions.

Man, the most dangerous enemy of lions

Poaching, Rivalry with local populations, lowering scarcity of preys, reduction of the natural habitat: all of these extinction’s factors are due to Men.

Hunting trophies and traditional medicine: the expanding trade of big cats carcasses

600 lions get killed each year by the bullets of Occidental hunter, primarily American. Hunting safaris get an increasing success. Considered a hobby or a sport, hunt compromises the surviving of African lions, especially as the most popular targets are the dominant males, stronger and healthier as the others.

The sudden disappearance of a dominant male, however, shakes the hierarchy of the troop up, jeopardizing its survival. Indeed, it causes fights for domination between the remaining male lions and the slaughter of the former male dominant’s cubs which could weaken the new male dominant’s authority.

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Lion’s poaching, either by Occidental tourists or local poachers, feeds the flourishing trade of meat and hunting trophies: organs, lion skin’s rugs, claws and skulls have success on the black market.

This market grows in the US. Between 1999 and 2008, 60% of the lion carcasses from Africa got imported in the US but it also exists in a lesser number in Africa and Asia, where the lion’s parts such as the skin or the bones are well known for their so-called medical properties.

Big cat’s bones, crumbled to dust, enter in the compounding of remedies or various traditional beverages: love potions or “tiger wine”. This wine, made of tiger bones macerating in rice liquor, is a flagship product of the Chinese traditional medicine.

Tiger bones, especially wanted in Chinese medicine to make this wine, however, became too rare. Wild tiger’s population tragically decreased from 50 000 to 3 000 in the last 50 years.

Savannah’s drop and fragmentation

Human activities (urbanisation, agriculture and farming, human installation in Subsaharian Africa) lead to a massive savannah’s deforestation, natural environment of the lion. This big cat lives only in 15% of its former territory, which also got broken up: Lions get isolated on tiny territories scattered on the African continent.

Urbanisation doesn’t spare protected areas. The construction of a motorway in Tanzania through the Serengeti National Park got recently announced. This very controversial project got luckily suspended in 2014 by the East African Court of Justice.

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The lowering Scarcity of preys

Savannah’s drop and human’s competition make’s lions’ preys rarer. Gnu, zebra, buffalo, antelopes and others are actually endangered species as well.

A lot of predators, human included, fight for less and less game on the same hunting ground. Bushmeat feeds indeed mine workers who camp far from the cities. It is also popular on the local market. To compensate for the lack of preys, lions have to extend their hunting ground or to attack the flocks.

Violent conflicts with humans

There is a lot of tension between the local communities and the wildlife about the appropriation of lands to turn it into pasturelands and cattle’s protection. Because of the rarefaction of the wild game, lions must make do with the farmed animals indeed. Those are easy preys trespassing their territory.

These conflicts are especially strong in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and in a part of Namibia, countries where the government went into action to protect the lion. Territories, including pasturelands, got requisitioned to become protected areas. Local farmers found themselves forced to let their flocks graze illegally on protected areas.

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local communities understood the problem after being alarmed to the extreme vulnerability of the lions. That is why there less and less lions being shot as an act of vengeance. However, a new form of persecution, unfortunately, gained strength: poisoning. Farmers leave poisoned carcasses to lions before they lose any animal in their flock.

This has big consequences because it doesn’t target a specific lion and can decimate a whole group. A hundred lions die of poison each year in Kenya. This is how Bibi, a lioness the Maasaï Mara reserve in Kenya which became famous by being the star of the English documentary “Big Cat Diary” got killed. At least six other lions of her troop got poisoned like her. Some of them managed to survive.

Some other endangered big cats in Africa

Two other emblematic African big cats are also protected species: the cheetah and the leopard. They both figure on the red list of the IUCN as vulnerable species. 

The cheetah, famous for its velocity, suffered a quite rash decline which researchers just got aware of. These discreet animals are difficult to observe, which means they are hard to take a census of. There are less than 7 100 wild cheetahs in Africa while they were 100 000 a century ago. Just in Zimbabwe, the population lessened by 85% in the last 15 years, passing from 1 200 to 170 animals.

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This big cat is a particularly vulnerable predator, for which hunting is not easy despite its speed. It needs big areas empty of any other more effective predator like lions and leopards.

Cheetahs lost 91% of its historic natural habitat and 3 quarters of it is outside of outside national parks. It means that human activities directly impact its territory: pasturelands, roads, villages scatter the cheetah’s territory. The latter attack the flocks, making coexisting complicated. A lot of them also get killed by cars.

The species is additionally menaced by the impoverishment of its genetic diversity. We even consider cloning to save the cheetah.

As for leopards went from 700 000 to 50 000 individuals in the last century. There are also wanted by hunters. Each year in 5 countries – South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe –, 2 000 specimens get killed to end up like trophies. Leopard’s fangs are very valuable for poachers because this is the big cat with the biggest fangs in relation to its size.

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The economic value of big cats: from touristic curiosity to hunting trophies

Natural reserves protect big cats to a certain extent. governments, however, are in a dead end: parks cover limited areas. Rangers must sometimes use some drastic ways to not go over the park’s capacity, such as contraception or euthanasia, which is contradictory to the concerning state of the species.

Unfortunately, animals’ confinement in natural reserves makes them also more vulnerable to poaching. Since 77% of the cheetahs live in reserves, those are easy targets for poachers.

Besides, local governments take advantage of the organized hunt. This practice gives finances to the maintenance of the national parks. We can then justify responsibly managed hunting safaris since they might help to regulate the big cat’s population to maintain it under the maximum capacity of the park. Another vagueness of national parks is about tourism. In Central and East Africa, lion’s protection is promoted by touristic activities. Big cats are a very popular attraction indeed. Natural parks are known all around the world and are overwhelmed with visitors.

In West Africa, however, we hardly to attract tourists. It means that the parks protect the big cats without making any profits, which is not encouraging their protection.

We still have to finally speak about conflicts with local populations: urbanisation and agriculture reduced the protected areas’ size. Besides, natural reserves close to the cities pose a problem of security. This year in South Africa, lions escaped from the Kruger National park and came close to the habitations.

Take action to protect the lion

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It is not an irreversible situation. Lion is a resilient species which can recover if we give it the means. Some rare populations living in natural reserves are stable or increasing in 4 African countries. It proves the efficiency of the preservation’s politics: fenced national parks can contribute to the species’ safeguard.

The United States put the lion in the list of the endangered species

It has been years since activists from the United States began to ask for a better protection of the lion. They multiplied calls for governmental actions condemning the hunt and the carcass’ traffic as well as the registration of the African lion as an endangered species.

We had to wait until the infamous poaching of Cecil, the iconic Zimbabwean lion to see the government react. In July 2015, the death of the lion with a black mane shocked the whole world. This crime which happened in a protected national park got severely condemned and made both people and government react.

Since end 2015, the lion is considered an endangered species in the US. It concerns Panthera leo leo living wild in India, Central and West Africa. The African lion Panthera leo melanochaita, living in East Africa and in the South of the continent, is classified as a threatened species.

This decision, while not forbidding hunting, makes it harder to get a hunting permit and supports fight against lion’s carcass’ traffic.

Associations to support for the big cats’ protection

According to the African Wildlife Foundation, we all can go into action to have an impact on the governments, just like it happened in the US in 2015.

By this mean, we can get to decisions in favour of lions:

  • Laws forbidding carcass’ traffic of protected animals, punishing the smugglers;

  • a financial support to African countries in favour of a good functioning of the national parks. In order to fight against poaching, poachers need a proper equipment.

  • A financial support to make coexistence of the local population and endangered big cats easier. For example, a project of building runs for the cattle proved to be effective: animals are protected from the lions and villagers stopped slaughtering them.

To stay informed or take a part of the African big cat’s protection by donating, you can get informed through these associations:

  • The African Wildlife Foundation, or AWF, takes action for the protection of all the endangered African species, big cats as well as their preys. This organisation is amongst other the main actor of the Ruaha Carnivore Project which consists of building the already mentioned runs to shelter the flocks of the local shepherds.
  • The NGO Panthera protects endangered wild big cats around the world: lions, leopards, cheetahs, tigers, jaguars and many others. They fight for natural habitat’s preservation and against poaching while preventing conflicts between Men and animals.
  • The IUCN announced this year a protecting programme for African big predators, including cheetahs, lions and leopards. This programme, called SOS Save Our Species tries to improve big cat’s preservation by helping local communities to live near to them.