The Lion King is dying: Conservation funding stagnates as clock ticks down on saving the king of the jungle
Lions have declined from 200,000 a century ago to 20,000 today, vanishing from over 95% of their range. But conservationists say there is still hope.
A world without lions would be poorer in every sense of the word. It has been 25 years since the world was introduced to 'The Lion King' and while the latest remake has made its way into being the ninth-largest global debut of all-time at $438.8 million, the reality of the Mufasas, Sarabis, and Simbas of the world isn't as exhilarating.
Since 1994, the number of African lions has reduced by almost half. Lions have declined from 200,000 a century ago to 20,000 today and have vanished from over 95% of their range. Lions are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the need to protect them is urgent. Conservationists say there is still hope.
We need to put our money where our mouth is
Funding is the single largest challenge in conservation. If we continue to stay aloof, experts say, lions will only exist in protected areas, that too, if they make it through the current scenario. The annual upkeep cost for all the protected areas would come to $1 billion.
"Is there good out in the real world for lions? Thankfully, the answer is yes, but also no," says Paul Funston, Southern Africa Regional Director and Lion Program Director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. They are on the frontlines, fighting to stop poaching, preventing conflict with people, conserving habitats, and reducing unsustainable legal hunting. Dr. Funston says that while there are just two handfuls of protected areas in Africa, these are doing well. Places like Kruger, Etosha, Moremi, Chobe, Gorongosa, and Serengeti National Parks, he says, are not only accessible to tourists but are so incredibly well managed by either by governments or private enterprises and, in some cases, by a wealthy philanthropist.
"I believe it’s very important for us to recognize that and hold onto these areas at all costs," he adds. However, across almost all other protected areas, lions are faring less well and are in decline, as they are outside of protected areas in landscapes where they co-exist with people.
The intense public fascination to Lion King points to two things - the global public is fascinated by lions and it is unfortunately not translating into effective conservation action, says Amy Dickman, a conservation biologist who works with the Ruaha Carnivore Project among other conservation efforts. Dr. Dickman says lions have vanished from around 94 percent of their historic range and more than half the remaining populations have fewer than 100 lions left, making them extremely vulnerable.
"There are now only six large populations left which have at least 1,000 lions, so this most iconic and beloved species internationally is fading away before our eyes. Hopefully, the new 'Lion King' film will not only increase attention for lions, but will also substantially increase funding for conservation, or the future looks very bleak for wild lions," she says.
Funding to support protected area management is by far the most significant, along with government will and commitment, says Dr. Funston, expressing similar sentiments. "But resources to manage parks is by far the greatest challenge," he says.
Communities get much less than we think they do
"The sad reality is that communities in the surrounding Private Game Reserves and Game Lodges do not share sufficiently in the profits from conservation areas," says a spokesperson from Siyobana Africa, Kruger National Park. "Most communities receive a levy of 1% of the bed night cost - the question is would this be enough and do they actually receive these funds?" They see this as a solution. If they could remunerate communities surrounding conservation areas significantly and let them benefit enough, they would definitely be inclined to conserve.
It would also help with the gigantic bushmeat problem.
A major yet under-appreciated threat
Habitat loss and conversion are also major threats to lions. Poaching of particular body parts and otherwise, hunting, human-animal conflict are well-known factors that pose a challenge to lion conservationists but bushmeat poaching is just as threatening as the rest of them, if not more. Bushmeat, also called wildmeat or game meat, is meat from non-domesticated mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds hunted for food in tropical forests.
The meat provides a valuable source of protein for people in rural communities where rearing domestic animals is not feasible. Conservation experts estimate that up to six million tons of bushmeat are taken from the Amazon and the Congo Basin each year.
A paper written by Dr. Dickinson and her team in 2017 revealed that over half of protected areas with lions had less than half the lion prey they should have, and bushmeat poaching was identified as the major threat to lion prey and lions themselves within protected areas. "Lions are affected severely by bushmeat poaching as they cannot survive without adequate prey, and they are also often caught in snares set out for bushmeat," she says.
There are two ways to go about solving this problem say, experts. If locals are hunting bushmeat for their own dietary needs, then conservationists need to look into more sustainable, alternative forms of protein to reduce that threat, says Dr. Dickman. It also depends on the driving force - if it is a local nutrition problem or if it is the demand from international markets. It requires campaigns and alternatives like rabbit and poultry, she says.
Another approach is the reward system, wherein conservationists build a relationship with the community to foster their protection and offering performance payment for behavior change or compliance says Dr. Funston. Rangers are also utilized in the conservation of these animals.
The goal isn't to keep people out, it is to co-exist
The human-animal conflict is a growing problem with the human population of Africa climbing every day, especially around the edges of the protected areas but it can be solved and it is the community - that is the most crucial part of the equation.
Protected areas do not need to be fortresses against people, they should be key assets to local people, with fair and equitable transactions, and be seen as vital for human life because of the immensely valuable ecosystem services they offer, says Dr. Funston.
"Human-lion conflict is indeed readily solvable when committed and dedicated support is brought to any community suffering severe conflict," he says. The game plan should start with identifying conflict hotspots, ensuring livestock are in lion-proof kraals or barriers at night and ensuring they are accompanied by herders in the day, he says. "The solutions are simple, yet the reasons why rural communities don’t take such actions run deep," he adds.
Around Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, Dr. Dickman and her team are predator proofing enclosures to protect the attacks on livestock and using specialized guard dogs. The villagers are encouraged to place out camera-traps on their land, which take photos of wild animals. "The more wild animals – particularly dangerous species like lions – they record on village land, the more community benefits they receive," she explains. What happens is it has an overall positive effect on the community, who would now not just take steps to reduce killing lions but also their prey.
While the exact mechanisms vary between sites, to reduce conflict, locals have to be engaged and empowered while transforming wildlife from a "cost" accrual to a "real benefit", she says.
Trophy hunting funds some protected areas
Trophy hunters Darren and Carolyn Carter of Edmonton, Alberta had been the latest cause of uproar on the internet regarding trophy hunting after they posted a photo of themselves near a lion's dead body under the "hot Kalahari sun."
Dr. Dickman says that while people may hate it, it funds the maintenance of many protected areas. They pay more money, far more money than a photography tourist - lion trophy hunts, in particular, are very expensive. Moreover, trophy hunting occurs in places where photographic tourism is low and maintaining the habitat is tougher than others.
" ...so if that revenue declines, we will be in an even worse situation for wildlife. If the international community does not start investing seriously in conservation, then many of the existing lion populations will disappear in the not-too-distant future," she says.
When people see images of dead lions with hunters, especially with hyped-up media headlines, they are outraged that trophy hunting can occur and although it's great that they're passionate, says Dickman, more lion range is protected under trophy hunting than under National Parks, and that there are currently no viable alternatives for much of that hunting land. "So, if trophy hunting stops without a better alternative", she says, "then it is very likely that far more lions and other wildlife would be killed - usually in horrible ways such as poisoning or snaring, as that land is converted to agriculture or settlement."
She dislikes it, she says and is disgusted by the images, but she recognizes that conservation has more to do with facts than emotion. "We need to be far more responsible as a community and about ensuring that we convey the full picture and its complexity, rather than just trying to get clicks and public outrage, as that can lead to very poor decision-making, with devastating consequences for lions, other wildlife and local people," she says.
However, while they do play their part in helping conservation, neither trophy hunting nor photographic tourism, separately and combined generate sufficient funds to adequately maintain protected areas for lions on a continental scale. "Therefore, we need new sources of money to make up the shortfall and reduce further declines."