The population of lions could be halved across much of the African continent within 20 years, with those in west Africa in danger of being wiped out due to hunting and humans’ increasing need for cultivated land, a new study has warned.
The 20-year study, now published by the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, sounds the alarm over the future of Africa’s estimated at only 20,000.
The alarm comes at a time when human-wildlife conflict has increased due to shrinking space.
Last week, Environment cabinet secretary Prof Judi Wakhungu said compensation totalling Sh15 million will go to Kajiado county for loss of three lives.
The study says the only exceptions are the intensively managed populations in the southern countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where lion numbers are increasing.
Kenya’s numbers could be plummeting and the government has created a new team to save the lion.
Researchers estimate that in the mid-20th century there were around 200,000 lions spread throughout Africa.
Prey availability, indiscriminate killing, size and extent of the lion population, amount of wild habitat available, and efficacy of management for lion conservation are some of the top threats facing lions.
Other important factors include lion population size, habitat quality, lion population status, and the presence of domestic livestock.
An expanding human population has also led to increasing expansion of human settlement into lion habitat.
Livestock and agriculture necessary to sustain people in both rural and urban areas has also eaten into lion habitat. For lions, this results in habitat loss, population fragmentation, and reduction in the wild prey base.
The numbers have been lowered through poisoning, trapping and shooting of lions and lack of support for lion conservation among local communities.
The study says many lion populations are either now gone or expected to disappear within the next few decades, to the extent that the intensively managed populations in southern Africa may soon supersede the iconic Savannah landscapes in East Africa as the most successful sites for lion conservation.
The study found out that west Africa is in most critical stage.
Kenya Wildlife Service senior warden Tuqa Jirmo said the problem especially in Kenya has been compounded by lack of reliable data on lion needed for establishment of specific conservation targets.
The population of lion in the country was estimated at 2,749 in 2002 and 2,280 in 2004.
“Basic surveys on population estimates and censuses where possible, are needed to refine conservation objectives, and improved monitoring of status, distribution and conflicts will be critical to evaluate the success of any future policy,” he says.
Jirmo says lions form a vital component of Kenya’s natural ecosystems by affecting not only prey numbers, but also prey behaviour, lions have an important function in structuring ecological communities. “Not only do lions require sufficient wild prey to survive and breed, they also kill fewer livestock when wild prey is available. The abundance of wild prey depends upon a host of factors, some of which are uncontrollable, but which also include the density and distribution of livestock, and off take of wild ungulates,” he says.
“The lion is one of the flagship species of Kenya for research and tourism. Lion presence in an area is considered an indicator of its wild and natural integrity.”
Jirmo says the protected area network must lie at the core of lion conservation efforts, with Tsavo and the Mara-Serengeti particularly important for the conservation of ecologically functional populations.
Jirmo said prey conservation is vital as lions not only require sufficient wild prey to survive and breed, but also kill fewer livestock when wild prey is available.
Jirmo says all is not lost as the KWS has already established a working group to advise, among other issues, on the development and implementation of a national strategy for lion conservation.
The working group has been meeting regularly to deliberate the formulation of a national lion conservation strategy, he says.
The strategy will have succeeded if monitoring demonstrates that numerically viable and ecologically functional populations of lions in Kenya have increased and the proportionate number of livestock killed by lions have reduced.
Lewa wildlife ranch chief conservation officer Geoffrey Chege says lions need more space by creating a matrix of interconnected conservation areas in public, private and community land with safe corridors to act as highways for movement and act as disposal areas.
Chege says the public need not be left out as they are key in conservation efforts.
“Public need to be sensitised to reduce all threats facing lion today such as herding strategies,erecting firm Bomas, use of dogs as early warning systems among other.”