No Silver Bullet Will Save the African Lion #worldlionday

It has been just over a year since the senseless killing of Cecil the Lion ignited a worldwide firestorm of outrage over trophy hunting. The tragic event spurred conversation and debate in many public spheres and became one of the most widespread conservation stories in history. It was a defining moment for not only the scientific and conservation communities, but for people from all walks of life.

The public uproar over Cecil’s death brought much-needed attention to the plight of the African lion. As a result, several countries blocked or tightened restrictions on the import of animal trophies and a handful of major airlines banned their transport. In a significant step forward, lions were officially listed under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in December of 2015.

While the increased focus on lions is encouraging, the fact remains that the bigger picture of lion conservation is often misunderstood. Trophy hunting—while an important part of that picture—causes a relatively small number of lion deaths each year. If this iconic species is to continue roaming freely across Africa, other critical concerns must be urgently brought to the forefront of the global conversation with the same intensity. On this World Lion Day, it is time for us to raise the flag for all of the threats facing lions today. By doing so, we can take the next essential steps toward saving this vital species—without which the wilds of Africa will be forever altered.

Recent estimates report that lion populations in Africa have plummeted to between 32,000 and 20,000 individuals, a 43 percent decline over the past two decades and a nearly 90 percent decline over the last century. Meanwhile, Africa’s human population is growing rapidly and is expected to more than triple by the year 2100. As the wilderness collides with growing human settlements, critical wildlife habitats are experiencing unprecedented fragmentation and degradation. In addition to human encroachment, vital rangelands are disappearing due to increased grazing pressure, water scarcity as a result of climate change, unregulated land conversion, poor farming practices, and deforestation. This loss of habitat not only represents a big problem for lions, but also for their prey species, many of whose numbers are also in a rapid freefall.

Zebra, a primary prey species for lions, graze on the savannah in Northern Tanzania. (Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund/Laly Lichtenfeld)
Zebra, a primary prey species for lions, graze on the savannah in Northern Tanzania. (Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund/Laly Lichtenfeld)

As their prey numbers decline and human settlements grow closer, lions are increasingly turning to the livestock of local pastoralists for an easy meal. The loss of a cow is viewed as a personal attack, and people often retaliate against lions by shooting, spearing, or poisoning them. This type of human-wildlife conflict is currently one of the leading causes of lion mortality in Africa, but we aren’t seeing the subject make many headlines.

In addition, more and more lions and their prey are becoming victims of the poacher’s snare, destined for the bush meat trade or left undetected to die agonizing and needless deaths. The unsustainable bush meat trade is emptying the forests and savannas of animals, thereby limiting future opportunities for surrounding communities to benefit from their wildlife. Another incentive for poachers appears to be a burgeoning demand for lion bones, skins, and other body parts. We must devote our collective attention to understanding and stopping this emerging threat before there is another elephant in the room, sadly literally.

The above scenarios appear to paint a bleak picture for the future of lions in Africa. How do we then move forward with hope for this species? It is clear that there is no silver bullet. When we step away from our own priorities and emphases, all aspects of lion conservation become essential and must be nuanced to the ecological and cultural context where individuals and organizations are working.

Rural villagers construct a Living Wall to prevent human-wildlife conflict. (Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund/Andrea Pawel)
Rural villagers in Northern Tanzania construct a Living Wall to prevent human-wildlife conflict. (Photo courtesy of African People & Wildlife Fund/Andrea Pawel)

For the African People & Wildlife Fund, this context means working in close partnership with rural communities who live alongside one of the most endangered lion populations in all of Tanzania. Together, we are working to protect lions and the vast landscapes they depend on for their survival. Through an ongoing and open dialogue with community members, we collectively determine what issues are most critical to their livelihoods and then work to ensure that their concerns are addressed.

One of the main problems they seek to solve is that of human-wildlife conflict. Among the five programmatic areas where we work in Northern Tanzania, we see nuances in the situation on the ground. For example, some communities experience higher predation levels at the boma—or homestead—while others see higher levels at pasture. For this reason, our engagement and solutions have to be specifically tied to the on-the-ground context and must be able to evolve according to community feedback.

In Tanzania, as with many other places, we see all threats to lion conservation being expressed, albeit with different intensities in different places. Accordingly, there is a pressing need for strategically coordinated efforts to strengthen protected area networks, reduce human-wildlife conflict, restore habitats, increase prey species populations, regulate trophy hunting, and combat the lion bone and bush meat trades in lion territories in a manner that is proportionate to the level at which these threats are expressed. To save this species, we must prioritize the lion as we define and promote our organizational objectives whenever possible.

A year ago, Cecil’s untimely death taught us that the world cares about what happens to lions. It showed us that the global public has a powerful voice when it comes to protecting the future of a species in peril. We must now tap into that power in order to galvanize an even larger discussion that includes the full picture of lion conservation. And, it is critical that we not only emphasize the problems facing lions, but also the solutions on the ground that are helping to save them. Such comprehensive dialogues are imperative not only for the future of lions but for other endangered species in Africa and around the world.

To learn more about the African People & Wildlife Fund’s community-driven conservation initiatives, please click here.

Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld is the co-founder and executive director of the African People & Wildlife Fund. She is also a grantee of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.

Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld is a woman with a passion for Africa and for conservation. Residing in Tanzania, Laly co-founded African People & Wildlife in 2005 to help rural communities conserve and benefit from their wildlife and natural resources. With 20 years of on-the-ground experience in East African wildlife conservation, Laly specializes in human-wildlife conflict prevention, species conservation focusing on lions and other big cats, community empowerment and engagement in natural resource management, conservation education, and the development of conservation incentives for rural people. Laly is a Distinguished Alumni of the Yale Tropical Resources Institute, a National Geographic Explorer and the recipient of the prestigious Lowell Thomas Award for her conservation efforts.
  • Paul Tully

    ALL issues which result in the death of ANY lion must be restricted and stopped. INCLUDING hunting… which far too many people want to sit on the fence about.

    If hunters are so for conservation and provide so much for anti-poaching and conflict mitigation, then why are these issues on the increase? Strange that.

    If hunting lions is so important for conservation, then why have lions declined so drastically WITH hunting in operation? Strange that.

    the longer people try and allow ANY kind of death and killing, the longer we will have this issue of declining lions. All sources must be closed for the lion population to truly have time to re-populate itself and recover.

  • daniel

    This article begins with the writer decrying the “senseless” killing of cecil the lion.

    Then the writer proceeds to talk about issues related to habitat loss. They, correctly, point out that far more lions die every year from reasons related to habitat pressure than hunting. The writer says that ” This loss of habitat not only represents a big problem for lions, but also for their prey species, many of whose numbers are also in a rapid freefall.” and she is right.

    The writer would have us ask the question: how do we keep hungry people who need jobs from encroaching on lion land, and wiping them out due to habitat loss? The writer ignores that cecil the lion provides us with the answer to that question. Lion hunting allowed mr Bronkhorst to keep private land set aside for lion hunting. He was able to do this because people like Walter Palmer would pay 50000 for the head of a lion. there is no crop he could raise up that would pay as well as keeping his land in a condition conducive to lions being on it. he makes far more money selling sport hunts than he could ever earn raising cattle on teh same land.

    To have wild lion hunting, you have to have wild lions. To have wild lions, you have to have wild lion habitat. Whether anyone at National Geographic wants to admit it or not, lion hunting profitability is great for lion habitat. Without lion hunting, you can bet mr Bronkhost would till his land under, or let cattle graze on it, instead of allowing it to be habitat for wild lions and the wild game on which they must feed.

    and by the way if Bronkhorst did that, if he turned it into a cattle ranch, the lions would still die. He would simply shoot them down (also again correctly noted by the author) and nobody in Wisconsin would ever even hear about it or care if you told them.

    Hunting has a long history of working to protect habitat. Hunters have done more to protect habitat than most other people. We buy public lands and maintainence with our license fees. We hold private land in a natural state to encourage species protection. IF we want to save the lion, we have to do the same thing in Africa.

    everyone who loves lions should thank Walter Palmer. He has done more for lion habitat than almost anyone else most people would know.

    Everyone who loves lions should thank guys like Walter Palmer for making habitat protection profitable.

  • Kelly Askenase

    No, animal is safe over in Africa! Why do people’s want a trophy of a dead animal! Sick! Stop this madness before, we have no African animals!

  • John Jackson III

    It is misleading and misdirected to represent the hunt of Cecil to have been a “senseless killing’ and to otherwise suggest anything negative about safari hunting as the writer has done. But for the hunting conservation strategy Cecil would not have lived so long and the local lion population would not have doubled in number.The author’s letter is a fundraising letter and is irresponsible. The hunting community provides most lion habitat ( 5 times more habitat than national parks in Tanzania where the author of the article operates), most Wildlife Department operating revenue including most anti-poaching and important conservation incentive to local people who ultimately will determine the survival of lion. There is no alternative to the important role and value of hunting. As the renown lion scientist Craig Packer, Ph.D, states: “the lion needs the hunter as much as the hunter needs the lion.”

  • Gorodn

    I just saw comments that disgusted me. “People should thank Walter Palmer”? You got to be shitting me

    Once again, I hear the ill-informed hunting supporters defend palmer, use the overplayed “conservation” card, and spew the same thing over and over again.

    Id also like to put to rest the pathetic myth that cecil was, old and weak.

    Cecil was in control of two prides, TWO PRIDES, before his death, doesnt sound weak to me.

    And you know that money that allegedly goes to conservation? Guess what, only 3-5% reaches local communities. Zimbabwe villagers recieve nothing.




    When the proof is there that trophy hunting DOESNT help conservation, the myth shouldve been dead LONG ago.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media