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Eight ways to save Africa’s last wild lions

If cats really do have nine lives, the big wild cats of Africa are probably down to their last one or two. But help may be on the way, in the form of an ambitious new program to explore, test, and develop successful strategies to restore and safeguard the continent’s lions, cheetahs, and leopards. The...

If cats really do have nine lives, the big wild cats of Africa are probably down to their last one or two.

But help may be on the way, in the form of an ambitious new program to explore, test, and develop successful strategies to restore and safeguard the continent’s lions, cheetahs, and leopards.


The brainchild of Dereck and Beverly Joubert, veteran wildlife filmmakers and photographers, the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative has seeded eight field projects in recent months in an effort to stop and reverse the precipitous decline of Africa’s lions.

Once perhaps half a million in number, fewer than 20,000 lions may be surviving in the wild–and unless something is done urgently to address the situation they may disappear from the wild completely within the current generation.

At stake is much more than magnificent big cats. Our own long-term health and survival could also be at risk if we do not help them.

Click on the image to find out more about the Big Cats Intiative. Photo compilation courtesy of Beverly and Dereck Joubert

For the most part the lions are disappearing because of rising human-predator conflict over competition for the same resources, food and water. Observing and understanding this connectivity during decades of working in the African wilderness, the Jouberts came to realize that the solution for both cats and people lies in creating a symbiotic existence. Protecting big cats means protecting their range and habitat. Caring for their habitat means assuring healthy ecosystems that provide services humans depend on to survive.

This in mind, the Jouberts approached National Geographic to launch the Big Cats Initiative (BCI). Already the BCI has raised funding from donors, appointed a panel of experts, and awarded eight grants to conservationists and researchers trying to find ways to help Africa’s wild lions. Additional rounds to support projects for cheetahs and leopards are in the works, and eventually the BCI will also fund work to save tigers, jaguars and big cats across the world.


joubert_9272_600x450.jpgNational Geographic photo of Dereck and Beverly Joubert by Mark Thiessen

The first eight grants of the BCI support work in Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. The projects range from building barriers around traditional livestock enclosures to studying how increasingly widespread use of agricultural pesticides to poison predators can be stopped through government controls and education.

In some places the first round of funding is being used to establish baselines and databases–big cat restoration and protection cannot be done effectively if little is known about the health and status of their populations in the most critical survival hotspots.

I interviewed Dereck Joubert, co-founder of the Big Cats Initiative, about the BCI. Scroll down the page after the interview to watch a video interview with Terry Garcia, Executive vice President of National Geographic Mission Programs, about the National Geographic perspective of the Big Cats Initiative.

Dereck Joubert interviewed by David Braun

How did you come up with the idea of the Big Cats Initiative? What had you and Beverly witnessed and what led you to believe that such an initiative could work?

We had a chance when we became National geographic Explorers in Residence to look back at our lives, spent doing films and books inspiring people to care about big cats, to see how effective we and others like us had been.

The most dramatic number milestones started coming in. For half of our lives we have been actively promoting big cats, but since we were born 50 years ago lions numbered 450,000 and today there may be as few as 20,000!

We found this out by researching and assembling all known records and plotting them on a graph. This curve also showed us that if we extended that line, we could expect extinctions by 2020.

Forming some kind of emergency plan was clearly urgent. We approached Nat Geo with this idea and started gathering support from the big cat world.

In the National Geographic video below Beverly and Dereck Joubert talk about a project to mitigate conflict between Masaai herders and lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara.


Who are the main supporters of the Big Cats Initiative?

We have support from most NGOs, conservationists, and leaders in conservation for the concept of an emergency effort around the world. Financially, we find support wherever we can, from large donors and small contributors alike. We have a hugely successful web presence with millions of interested ‘hits’ a month and the message is going out far and wide.

We also count support by a number of key African leaders as important.

Who else would you like to include in the partnership?

This has to be a joint effort across all concerned people, politicians, conservationists, even hunters, or we will lose lions within ten years.

Eight grants have been made so far, all for African lions.

Yes, these are seed programs to see if any will be scalable to other places and to test the viability as models.

What are the intentions for supporting the world’s other big cats?

We have a cheetah program in place, we have a leopard project. I think tigers are in a much worse place than everything else, at 3,000 individuals in the wild, so that we must get involved there if we can, without it becoming political and if we can help.

What kind of applications for funding and testing are you looking for?

I’m after groundbreaking ideas more than science projects that have been tried (and failed or worked to a degree) before. We need remember that this is an emergency so we need an ideas factory more than PhD grants.

What’s your reaction to the first two rounds of grants, in terms of the range of projects?

There is a good spread with competent people. Some satisfy the need of ours to pilot a project and see if it works, maybe modify it and take it further. Some are innovative or extensions of new ideas. Some we must get behind simply because we have to help save the last pockets of lions in an area.

You have said you are confident that the big cats can be restored and conserved in the African wild. Can you flesh out that statement a bit?

My confidence never falters…it takes a few body blows from time to time, but…cats are fast breeders, and if we relieve the pressure they are under I am convinced they will bounce back. Cheetah, for example, bounced back from what is thought to be 200 individuals to the 12,000 they have now, and while we clearly don’t want to leave this too long, there is that potential to breed back.

I am most concerned about how and when we can alleviate that pressure though. My research shows that every time we add a billion people to the world all predators halve in number for a whole range of reasons: We use up their land, we kill them to eliminate them as competition for food, or we use them up as ritualized symbols of our greatness (hunting, skins, and so on). So as we grow the potential to eventually recover the big cats will diminish, unless we can start a major worldwide mindset change right now.

“That starts with a campaign like the Big Cats Initiative to highlight to everyone that we have a problem. Once that is acknowledged, then at least we will have taken that first step.”

That starts with a campaign like the Big Cats Initiative to highlight to everyone that we have a problem. Once that is acknowledged, then at least we will have taken that first step.

Up until recently some scientists were questioning what we were saying, and that we actually had a lion problem at all. We’re over that now, and we all agree this is serious. It’s like an Alcoholics Anonymous tactic…its starts, I guess, with admitting we have a problem, and in this case we now know that we are addicted to consuming and killing big cats.

Some of us like doing this for thrills, some because we have generations of instilled fear of large cats prowling the night nearby, and others, the pushers, are in this to make money from skins and bones.

But it has started and more and more kids are coming up to us after lectures and say: “How can we help? This is insane, what are your generation thinking?” Indeed, what are we thinking? When 95 percent of natural resources like great redwood trees, tuna stocks or lions have been killed in 50 years, you have to know that we are drunk on our omnipotence as users of the planet.

Both of you have played an enormous role in bringing photos and video to the global audience about the big cats in Africa. It’s a profound contribution to awareness and education…

Thanks, but it is a whisper in the storm.

How else are you personally involved in big cat restoration and conservation?

Well we started the Big Cats Initiative, we have been fighting the senseless killing of animals in Africa for 20 years, we have invested in a company called Great Plains Conservation that has as its main mission to find and purchase or run vast tracts of land in Africa (for now) in iconic places that would otherwise be threatened.

We enhance the natural habitat and secure these pieces, build up the wildlife and turn them back into safe land for wildlife. Much of that work is focused on big cats and today we have just over 1.2 million acres of wild land.

Recently I got a call from a friend about two lions that were caught and about to be shot. We flew in a plane, arranged permits in 36 hours, darted, loaded and released those lions in our reserve in Botswana.

Last month we moved two cheetah cubs into the reserve, rehabilitated them and just released them. They are doing well.

I am active in fighting FMC and other poison makers that are distributing Furadan into Africa, a poison that kills lions en masse. [Editor’s note: As of January 2010, FMC no longer distributes or sells Furadan in East and South Africa and has no plans to reintroduce Furadan in this region in the future, according to the company. Read more about this in a comment from FMC below this post and more about Furudan on the FNC website.]

We’re involved in rhino conservation and a range of other initiatives in Africa.

What are the biggest hurdles that must be overcome if we can be sure the big cats will survive in Africa?

I believe it’s habitat destruction, the consequent isolation of breeding populations, hunting, poisoning and other persecution that are a consequence of increasing collision between cats and humans.

The problem is human-predator conflict indeed, but habitat destruction is not necessarily the main cause. Some 84 percent of Africa is uninhabited as a result of the urban migration of people. But what is left is poached to shreds. We kill big cats for everything, because we love them (safari hunting takes 600 lions a year, hundreds come into the U.S. [as trophies] each year!) Poachers use poison to [kill] them for bone trade. Cattle herders poison them so they don’t kill their cattle. The real problem: seven billion people.

Interview with Terry Garcia

Watch the video interview with Terry Garcia, head of National Geographic Mission Programs, on why the National Geographic Society is supporting the Big Cats Initiative:

Anne Kent Taylor is one of the first grantees to receive funding from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. Read her blog posts from the field in Kenya’s Maasai Mara region, where she is helping mitigate conflict between herders and predators by providing chain-link fencing to secure livestock eclosures.

For regular updates about the Big Cats Initiative, grantees and scientists and blogging from the field and more, click on Nat Geo News Watch: Big Cats Initiative.

Posted by David Braun

The National Geographic video below focuses on a Nat Geo project that uses a Crittercam, a camera worn by a lion, to study how thebig cats hunt and raid African cattle ranches at night:

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From Linda W. Froelich, Global Product Stewardship Manager, FMC Corporation:

FMC has been concerned about the intentional misuse of our products and wants to ensure that wildlife is protected.  As of January 2010, FMC no longer distributes or sells Furadan in East and South Africa and has no plans to reintroduce Furadan in this region in the future.  Possibly there is generic carbofuran (the active ingredient in Furadan) being sold now by other pesticide producers.  However, no one else has access to FMC’s Furadan brand in East and South Africa.  We refer you to our website, for further information.   

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn