All over the sub-Saharan African continent lion numbers are plummeting to levels where, over large areas of their remaining distribution range, extinction has become a real threat. The main reason for the decreasing numbers is the increasing conflict between livestock farmers and lions owing to human population growth. Lions are forced to kill livestock where their natural prey has been squeezed out by livestock farming and the farmers, in retaliation kill lions indiscriminately.
We have no reliable data from earlier periods, but can confidently estimate that Africa’s lion population prior to colonization would have been at least one million.
Prof Norman Myers’ 1975 guesstimate of 200 000 is more reliable and the 2002 and 2004 survey figures of Dr P. Chardonnet and Dr H. Bauer and S. v.d. Merwe of 39 000 and 23 000 respectively reliable enough to calculate a decline of 88.5% in lion numbers. That is if Prof. Myers’ figure is accurate enough and also if the more accurate figures of Bauer and v.d. Merwe and Chardonnet have not declined further since the surveys around 2001/2002. It is, unfortunately, highly unlikely that lion numbers stayed the same.
Why the decline? Before 1800, there was no sign of an approaching human population crisis, and it only recently became an environmental problem. Today we have a world population of 7 billion and in sub-Saharan Africa humans are increasingly encroaching into lion habitat, with the resulting increased clashes between livestock owners and lions.
Lion researchers tackle the problem tirelessly. They work with affected communities to harmonise co-existence, but in the end the human’s preference overshadows the lion’s mute plea for protection. It is of the essence that we realise that sooner or later the lion’s voice will fall mute forever and Africa’s tourism icon will be no more.
The article and statistics was provided by Sarel van der Merwe, chair of the IUCN-affiliated African Lion Working Group, representing 83 lion researchers worldwide.
He is a member of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission and the Cat- and also Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.
Sarel has a Master’s Degree on lion/livestock interactions in the Kgalagadi-South Region of Botswana and although he is semi-retired, he still does consultation work on game farm and nature reserve management, and biodiversity baseline and impact assessments.
For more information contact Sarel van der Merwe at (021) 855 1276.