With each new day in Africa, a gazelle wakes up knowing he must outrun the fastest lion or perish. At the same time, a lion stirs and stretches, knowing he must outrun the fastest gazelle or starve. It’s no different for the human race. Whether you consider yourself a gazelle or a lion, you have to run faster than others to survive.
MOHAMMED BIN RASHID AL MAKTOUM, RULER OF THE EMIRATE OF DUBAI
Yesterday, August 10, was World Lion Day and so a fitting time to celebrate the past, present, and (hopefully) the long future of this great apex predator. But, while there is truth in Sheik Mohammed’s pithy observation, it misses one crucial point. For all its majesty and power, the lion has an enemy it cannot overcome or outrun—humankind. It has nothing in its evolutionary toolkit to meet this unequal contest, resulting in a survival crisis for the magnificent feline.
And it certainly is a magnificent creature, as anyone who has encountered one up close will attest. My abiding memory comes from a walking safari in the wilds of North Luangwa National Park in Zambia more than a decade ago. I was based at a fly camp on the banks of the Mwaleshi River, which flows eastwards through the center of the park before joining the main flow of the Luangwa. The Mwaleshi is shallow and free of hippos and crocodiles for much of its length before the confluence. This means that in the hour or so before sunset, a deckchair in the shallows and a chilled beer or two to hand is just about the perfect anodyne to a day’s walking under Zambia’s blazing September sun. Possibly even more blissful is the temporary respite from the dreaded tsetse fly that seems impervious to any repellent and able to drill its proboscis through concrete, let alone fabric and puny human skin.
Of course, none of this happens, except under the watchful eye of an armed ranger, for the Luangwa Valley is about as wild as Africa gets. The danger is never far afield. My reminder of that was early one morning, the sun not yet up. I was awake as I remember, but in a reverie rudely broken by a rumbling sound that literally shook my flimsy reed lean to its non-existent foundation. It was honestly one of the loudest natural sounds I have ever heard.
I rose and hesitantly moved to the gap between the top of my reed screen wall and the eaves of a thin grassy roof, feeling as safe as one of the three little pigs. With justification, for there no less than a meter or two away sat a fully maned lion proclaiming his presence and power to all within range. What a sound. The energy was literally stunning and produced with a violent contraction of his entire body I can only liken to a creature experiencing a gut-convulsing retch. Truly visceral. Eventually, his territorial exhibition ended, he sauntered off towards the river and, no doubt, some shady spot in which to pass the day. I was dry-mouthed and wobbly-kneed for hours afterward.
I subsequently learned that lion vocal cords (and tiger’s too) are unique. In most species, they are shaped like a triangle, whereas in these big cats, “the protrusions are flat and shaped like a square, courtesy of the fat deep within the vocal fold ligament.” This, scientists have found, allows the vocal tissue to respond more efficiently to air passing through it. The result: more sound with less air pressure, all of which adds up to a roar as loud as 114 decibels—that’s about 25 times louder than a gas-powered lawnmower.
In modern times lions have become so definitively associated with African landscapes that it is difficult to comprehend how extensive their distribution once was. It is even harder, perhaps, to imagine their presence in southern Britain, say, or in the far eastern wastes of Russia, or in Alaska. But they were there—in fact, lions were once the most globally widespread of all the mammal species.
In the late, Pleistocene distinct lion populations inhabited Africa, Eurasia, and America. Panthera spelaea, the cave lion, thrived across Europe, Eurasia, and into Alaska and Canada, while P. atrox, the American lion, ranged southwards from Canada, across the U.S.A., and possibly as far south as Patagonia in Argentina. However, the survival of these two ancient species did not extend beyond 11,900 years ago at the onset of the early Holocene. Their demise was probably attributable to several causes, including changes in climate patterns. But they were heavily hunted by our forebears, and it can be no coincidence that their extirpation followed the patterns of human migration across the globe.
Today’s surviving lions all belong to Panthera leo, a species that once extended across almost all of Africa, parts of southern Europe, the Middle East, and across into the Indian Subcontinent. They began to disappear from southeastern Europe sometime during the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E. but survived in parts of Greece until the 4th century of the current era and to the 10th century in the Caucasus region. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Asian lions of the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Subcontinent had been lost but for a remnant population now centered in the Gir Forest National Park, an area smaller than Greater London in the Indian State of Gujerat. The demise of lions (and tigers) from the Subcontinent can be predominantly attributed to the unsustainable pressures of hunting and general extermination that followed the path of colonial India, where wild predators posing a threat to the commercial development of the land were ruthlessly decimated.
So, a mammal that proudly roamed across much of the world was reduced to one central repository of its genetic diversity—Africa. But even here, where it once lived everywhere but the Congo Basin forests and the harsh dry expanse of the Sahara, its distribution is much diminished. No one really knows how many lions there once were. Still, some estimates suggest that 200,000 lions lived in Africa at the turn of the 20th century, and maybe millions before that. Today, the species survives in many landlocked “islands,” amounting to no more than 20 percent of its historic range.” Its official numbers have been reduced to between 20,000 and 30,000, with a third gone in the past 20 years, primarily to hunting and habitat loss. Some fear that far fewer remain.
The naming of lions seems to be in a state of flux. The taxonomic discussion in the IUCN’s Red List regards all surviving lions as Panthera leo, but respectively places the Asian and African subpopulations in two subspecies: P. l. persica and P. l. leo. However, new research reveals that this traditional split is untenable, with strong evidence suggesting a different arrangement. Accordingly, the IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group has provisionally proposed that P. l. leo should embrace the lions of Asia, and West, Central, and North Africa, while the newly named P. l. melanochaita should represent the populations from South and East Africa. Many people might dismiss such taxonomic rigor as hair-splitting for hair-splitting’s sake, but a precise understanding of lion genetics has far-reaching significance for conservation strategies, including the appropriateness of relocating lions from one location to bolster declining populations elsewhere.
Consider, for example, that overall the lion is currently classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. However, although lion subpopulations have increased by 12 percent across India and four southern African countries—Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—populations elsewhere have declined by some 60 percent. The lions in these places meet the criteria for Endangered. It becomes even more complicated given regional variation within the “rest of Africa,” where many small populations are at the brink of extinction. So, it appears that the lions of South Africa will be classified as being of Least Concern, while the remnant populations of West Africa meet the Critically Endangered criteria, and those in the remainder of the African range states and in India will be regarded as Endangered.
In the final analysis, the overall classification of the lion will remain Vulnerable but as a result of different underlying reasoning based on a better genetic understanding and good quality data for subpopulations. Notwithstanding these welcome refinements, the science remains indicative of a decline for the species as a whole.
Offsetting this rather gloomy conclusion is some good news. The Endangered Wildlife Trust (E.W.T.) was awarded a grant in 2018 to create a database consolidating continent-wide, reliable data on the population and distribution of lions across the continent. This platform will help assess priorities, measure conservation progress, and monitor trends in lion populations and their threats in Africa. Hopefully, it will finally be able to answer the question as to how many wild lions Africa really has, and where they are.
In India, lions face poaching and habitat fragmentation as major threats. However, three major roads and a railway track pass through the Gir Protected Area in addition to these issues that beset wildlife globally. Furthermore, Gir is home to three large and busy temples attracting a constant flow of pilgrims. Nevertheless, conservation efforts have seen the lion population increase steadily from 523 in 2015 to 674 in 2020 in the Gir Forest and the larger Saurashtra protected region. This is to be celebrated, but W.W.F. adds a cautionary note: “Though the [human/wildlife] conflict is not high now, with changing lifestyles and values, this may increase in the future. There are also cases of lions dying by falling into the unguarded wells around the Gir PA. The Asiatic lion faces the threat of genetic inbreeding arising from a single population in one place.” Also, with such a small population confined to a single area, these lions are susceptible to disease and natural disasters such as fires.
As Panthera soberly notes in its excellent 2017 publication Beyond Cecil: Africa’s Lions in Crisis, co-produced with Wild Aid and WildCRU, lions have indeed undergone “catastrophic declines since the commercialization of livestock ranching and agriculture in Africa.” Only in a few places do they have a measure of security, and in many, they face imminent extinction.
Lions in Africa are most significantly impacted by illegal bushmeat hunting and the body part trade, conflict with local people due to livestock depredation, habitat loss and fragmentation, and to a lesser extent by unsustainable trophy hunting. The report’s title reflects the hunting issue—the illegal shooting of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe in July 2015 sent shockwaves of raw emotion across the world. Significant global restrictions resulted regarding the import of African lion trophies. It also challenged hunters and governments supporting hunting agendas to proffer scientific evidence of the purported benefits of lion hunting to the species. In a landmark decision in May this year, the South African Government’s High-Level Panel “identified that the captive lion industry poses risks to the sustainability of wild lion conservation … [and] recommends that South Africa does not captive breed lions, keep lions in captivity, or use captive lions or their derivatives commercially.”
Barbara Creecy, the government minister overseeing the process, pointed out this was not a move against the hunting industry. Nevertheless, it was a body blow and a death knell for the lucrative captive breeding industry, which provides the fodder for canned lion hunts.
In 2016, Luke Hunter, then President of Panthera, commented, “One year ago, with the loss of Cecil, the world responded unequivocally that it stands with Africa in saving the lion. Sadly, we have since lost hundreds and possibly thousands of lions. The species is now approaching the point of no return in many countries. Saving this extraordinary animal requires the international community to convert their outrage over Cecil into action and dollars supporting African governments, people and initiatives fighting to save the lion.”
In an interview in January this year, Dr. Paul Funston, the Lion Program Director for Panthera and member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, suggested that there could be at least 80,000 wild lions in Africa—a four-times increase on current numbers of 20,000, but only if parks are properly managed, and governments commit to conservation. A vital proviso.
Panthera’s Project Leonardo has the stated aim of seeing the world’s lion population reach 30,000 by the 2030s. When I read this, I couldn’t help thinking, “Phew, that’s a big ask.” But Paul is one of the most enthusiastic and dedicated conservationists I know. And if he’s putting his shoulder to the wheel of this ambition, I believe he and all the other lion champions out there deserve our undivided support, not just on World Lion Day but every waking moment we have.