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African Lions on the Brink: A Conversation with Lion Expert Craig Packer

Is the sun setting for lions and other iconic wildlife species in Africa? This lioness is one of a fast-dwindling number of African lions. (Photograph: Craig Packer) With roars that rend the African night, lions have captured our imaginations since the dawn of humankind. “Lions have long been celebrated in art and literature throughout the...

Is the sun setting for lions and other iconic wildlife species in Africa? This lioness is one of a fast-dwindling number of African lions. (Photograph: Craig Packer)

With roars that rend the African night, lions have captured our imaginations since the dawn of humankind.

“Lions have long been celebrated in art and literature throughout the world,” says ecologist Craig Packer, National Geographic Explorer and Expeditions Council grantee, and director of the University of Minnesota Lion Center. In the face of habitat loss and other risks, will lions still rule the savanna in ten, twenty, one hundred years?

After the now-famous lion Cecil’s death in July, 2015, progress was made in protecting African lions. The U.S. listed them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and airlines around the world refused to fly the spoils of lion trophy-hunting out of Africa.

Major recent conferences, including a National Geographic Society event on Trophy Hunting and Lion Conservation, brought together lion scientists and conservationists to discuss the next steps. For a look into the future, I talked with Packer, a renowned expert on African lions.

Scientist Craig Packer in the field with lions.
Into the wild: National Geographic Explorer Craig Packer conducts research on lions in Africa’s savannas. (Photograph: Craig Packer)

How many African lions are left – and how can we save them?

There are 20,000 to 30,000 African lions remaining. That broad estimate reflects the fact that lions are difficult to count and a large amount of lion habitat in Africa has never been surveyed.

It’s essential to scale up the tactics that successfully protect lion habitat and mitigate human-lion conflicts. Strategies have been formulated and tested; it’s a matter of meaningfully addressing large tracts of habitat for lions. Africa still holds about one million square kilometers [some 386,000 square miles] of lion habitat, so it will require billions of dollars of funding from the international community each year for the foreseeable future.

A summit meeting was held in memory of Cecil the lion.
What will the future hold for lions? To find answers, a summit was recently held in memory of Cecil, the lion killed in 2015 in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

In September a summit was held in Cecil’s memory – The Cecil Summit  – at Oxford University in the U.K. The meeting was sponsored by Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and Panthera, an organization that works to conserve wild cat species around the world. What were the summit’s aims?

Among the main goals was finding a way to turn an online viral phenomenon – the death of Cecil – into a lasting conservation movement. The news cycle moved on within a few months, but lion numbers are still dwindling and the challenges continue to grow.

What was your personal hope for the summit?

To emphasize the financial role that major international agencies – those in the European Union, U.K. and U.S. governments, UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Bank – could play in protecting lion habitat, and for the participants to recognize the appropriate scale of funding.

Was there agreement among attendees about what needs to happen in the next year…five years…decade?

The next step will be to engage with lion range governments in Africa so they strengthen their commitment to lion conservation, and to encourage them to work with conservationists and international agencies to build a global platform for protecting their imperiled National Parks and Game Reserves. Hopefully, we’ll see meaningful financial commitments from the international community within the next five to ten years.

Lions are a global heritage.
Lions are a global heritage, says Packer, and should be protected as such. (Photograph: Craig Packer)

How will your collective recommendations be implemented?

We first need buy-in from the African range states [countries with lions] so they request assistance from the donor community. Two billion dollars a year may sound like a lot of money, but it’s not much in comparison with the global economy – especially if multiple donor countries work together with the 14 or so range states in Africa.

What are the main take-home messages from the summit?

Lion conservation is expensive. The price is far too high to be borne entirely by the poorest countries on Earth. Lions sometimes eat people and livestock; these devastating losses are suffered by impoverished rural communities. In the U.S., U.K. and European Union, national parks are funded by tax revenues. African parks are funded by visitor entrance fees or hunting fees. However, these revenues are far too small for wildlife to “pay its own way.”

Africa’s parks hold the most charismatic species on the planet – giraffe, elephant, hippo, zebra, lion, leopard and cheetah – a true global heritage. It’s up to all of us to help cover the costs of protecting these species. If the lion goes extinct, all these other species will go as well. We must all work together, but the scale of funding is beyond the scope of conservation groups. The financial requirements can only be met by world governments.

We need to move faster to save lions and their habitat.
To save Africa’s lions, we need to move quickly to protect their remaining habitat, biologists urge. (Photograph: Schuyler Shepherd, Wikimedia Commons)

At this month’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meeting, CITES members rejected a proposal to list the African lion under Appendix I, which would have offered the most protection. The move would have kept lions safe from commercial trade in their parts.

Instead a compromise agreement was reached that bans trade only in wild lion parts. It leaves open the sale of parts from captive-bred lions, such as those in South Africa. There some 7,000 lions are kept for “canned hunts” (trophy hunts in which the animals are in confined areas, increasing the likelihood of kills) and for the trade in purported medicinal lion bones. How will this decision affect the future for lions?

It remains to be seen. For the past decade, the canned lion industry has fully met the demand for lion bones, but I’ve started hearing reports that wild lions are being killed for their bones in Mozambique. If the legal trade provides cover for the illegal trade in wild lions, the situation could get worse quickly.

How does your research contribute to helping lions?

My research team now works in South Africa, where wild lions suffer minimal conflict with pastoralists and local people. South African parks are fully fenced, so the habitat is well-protected. The main challenge is that lions sometimes drive down prey numbers in the smaller parks. So we’re studying ways to improve ecological stability in these highly managed reserves.

For those hoping to see lions outside of zoos, where are the best locations?

The famous parks in Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – such as the Okavango in Botswana, Masai Mara in Kenya and Kruger in South Africa – still have reasonably healthy lion populations, and these animals are easy to view from a vehicle!

Will coming generations have the chance to see lions in the wild…to hear their roars in the night?

The good news, again, is that there are still more than one million square kilometers of viable lion habitat in Africa. If the world steps in with sufficient funding, there might be twice as many lions in 2036 as there are today. But if we don’t, we will likely see a continued decline. The human population of Africa may triple by the end of this century, crowding out lions and all the other wildlife species, so we need to move fast.

Will lions someday fade into the night?
How long will lions’ roars rend the African night? The answer, in large part, is up to us. (Photograph: Wikimedia Commons)

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Meet the Author

Cheryl Lyn Dybas
Award-winning science journalist and ecologist Cheryl Lyn Dybas, a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, brings a passion for wildlife and conservation to National Geographic, Natural History, National Wildlife, BioScience, Yankee and many other publications, and is a Field Editor at Ocean Geographic. Eye-to-eye with the wild is her favorite place to be.