By Fred Nelson
The news on lion population trends across Africa in recent years has been consistently gloomy. Lion numbers are estimated to have declined by more than 40 percent during the past two decades, and up to an additional 50 percent decline is forecast for the next twenty years. Lions are extinct or in small isolated populations across much of western and central Africa, with southern Africa and a handful of large ecosystems in East Africa the main remaining ranges.
One of the studies released last year also found that the only lion populations that seemed to be doing well were well-protected animals in fenced private reserves or parks in southern Africa, such as those on private conservancies in Zimbabwe or South Africa. That was the latest salvo in an ongoing recent debate about the likelihood of lions being able to survive outside of well-protected private reserves or national parks, and the merits of fencing off remaining populations in reserves.
While lions will always be able to survive in such fortified holdouts, the prospect of continued lion declines and eventual eradication on community and private lands is the most urgent conservation challenge facing these cats across their core remaining range in eastern and southern Africa. If lions cannot continue to move through and inhabit community lands, co-existing to some degree with local livestock herders and farmers, lion populations will eventually become isolated and lose genetic diversity. For this reason, finding ways to enable lions and people to co-exist is at the forefront of lion conservation efforts in Africa today.
Against the tide of bad news, then, a number of recent emerging cases of documented lion population recoveries on community lands provide new hope for lion conservation in rural landscapes. The latest was a study from Maasai pastoralist lands outside the Maasai Mara, where communities have increasingly been establishing conservancies, often based on joint venture agreements between landowners and ecotourism companies. These areas now make up around 285,000 acres of land around the Maasai Mara National Reserve, significantly increasing the area of conserved land in this northernmost segment of the Greater Serengeti ecosystem. Comparing estimated lion population densities recorded in 2003 with more recent surveys, researchers have concluded that, “lion densities have increased substantially within the Mara conservancies over the last decade,” and associate that change directly with conservancy formation and management.
Other community lands in southern Kenya have also witnessed lion recoveries. In the Maasai group ranches- communal landholding bodies- that encircle Amboseli National Park, and contain over 75% of the wildlife habitat in that important ecosystem, lion numbers have roughly tripled, reversing their declines from a decade ago.
A key to this turnaround has been the efforts of Lion Guardians, a local organization that works with Maasai livestock herders to enlist their support in protecting lions. Their unique model is based on converting Maasai warriors and youth from lion killers to lion ‘guardians’. They invert the traditional warrior custom of hunting lions by building new cultural values in monitoring and protecting lions from people, while helping their communities to prevent livestock from being lost to predators through a range of interventions.
Having prototyped a successful model in Amboseli, they are now working to transfer their tools and practices to other areas through training and collaboration, for example by recently providing support to rangers in Rwanda’s Akagera National Park after the reintroduction of lions there.
Another community-managed landscape where lions have recovered over the past decade is northwestern Namibia, where the unique ‘desert lions’ are found. Lion numbers in this region have grown from roughly 25 animals in 2004 to 150 a decade later, and are now contiguous across community lands between Etosha National Park and the Skeleton Coast.
The key to this recovery has also been innovative community conservation efforts. Most of northwest Namibia is now contained within community conservancies, where local people are given broad rights by the government to manage and benefit from wildlife. Through tourism and trophy hunting- including limited hunting of lions- revenues from wildlife create the rationale for communities to protect wildlife through game guards, local management plans, and wider community support.
Lions are not the only species that have recovered in the community conservancies of this part of Namibia; endemic Hartmann’s mountain zebra, black rhinos, and desert elephants have all recovered as well since the 1990s.
These examples provide evidence that where communities are empowered to manage their land and wildlife in ways that generate social and economic benefits, lions and other predators can be tolerated and sustained through local actions. This type of evidence comes from other species as well, such as the return of wild dogs– now numbering a population of nearly 300- in the community conservancies and private ranches of Laikipia District in central Kenya. The keys to replicating these experiences are wildlife policies that enable communities to play a lead management role in conserving and benefiting from wildlife.
Another key factor is the presence of innovative and capable local organizations to develop and scale up community-based conservation models. For example, a growing suite of local organizations in Kenya and Namibia have been key to developing innovative long-term initiatives that have resulted in the gains to lion conservation described above. A combination of enabling national policies, appropriate local management practices, and innovative local organizations are bringing greater hope that lions can survive alongside people, in the landscapes that will largely determine their fate.
Fred Nelson is the founder and Executive Director of Maliasili Initiatives, a non-profit organization that supports the growth, development and performance of leading civil society organizations working to advance sustainable natural resource management practices in Africa. He has worked on natural resource management and sustainable development in East Africa since 1998, with 11 years spent living and working on the ground in Tanzania. He’s served as both director and board member of leading conservation organizations in Tanzania, and has worked with a wide range of local and international groups to design and facilitate community-based conservation initiatives with local communities in northern Tanzania.