Vulnerable and Endangered Species: African Lion

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At the current rate of habitat loss and poaching, African lions could be completely extinct by 2050.

Lions are one of the most loved animals in the world and one of the biggest drawcards for travelers to Africa. Unfortunately, with the illegal wildlife trade booming, poachers lurking in the shadows, and trophy hunters paying thousands of dollars to hunt them, lions are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Some Facts About Lions in the Wild:

  • The lion population in Africa has decreased by 90% in the last century
  • There are currently only about 23,000 lions left in the wild
  • Lions are extinct in 26 countries across Africa

Are Lions Endangered?

Lions are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In some parts of Africa, lions are classified as “critically endangered” because lion populations are still plummeting at an unprecedented rate.

However, thanks to volunteer programs such as African Big 5 & Wildlife Conservation and Big Cat Wildlife Research & Conservation, lion populations are slowly bouncing back, and in some areas, thriving.

Portrait of lion comfortably sitting and staring off into the distance.
Portrait shot of a lion looking straight into the camera.

What are the Biggest Threats to African Lions?

These stats may be news to you, or you may be fighting on the front line of lion conservation. Either way, it’s clear that more challenges are faced than the term “vulnerable” necessarily suggests.
  1. Loss of habitat
  2. Illegal wildlife trade
  3. Poor regulation of legal trade
  4. Disease
  5. Climate change

1. Loss of Habitat

The loss of habitats is the leading cause of wildlife extinction and a reason why so many animals are endangered. Wild land is harvested for developments and agriculture and pushing lions (and many other animals) out of their natural habitats. Across Africa, lions now occupy less than 92% of the land they once did. This loss of habitat has severe consequences. Lions no longer have access to the vast stretches of savanna grasslands they need to find food, viable mating partners, and thrive as a pride. These shrinking habitats also mean humans and lions are being pushed closer together. Without a habitat that can support their needs, lions are forced to venture into villages and kill the livestock communities rely on for survival. The communities have no choice but to kill lions that get too close. Lions once roamed across most of the continent, but they have been thrust into a world where they are struggling to survive and it has had devastating consequences on this once mighty species.
A pride of lions walking towards camera.
volunteer with lions in Africa

2. Illegal Wildlife Trade

The illegal trade of wildlife is the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world. Organized crime syndicates operating in Africa often target impoverished communities surrounding protected areas and offer money for lions or threaten them with violence if they refuse to get involved with poaching.

Because many communities surrounding these areas are not well off, getting a large sum of money in return for poaching a lion is an attractive prospect for many of them, which has only boosted the industry and contributed to a poaching crisis that is overturning decades of conservation work.

The demand for tiger parts such as bones, teeth, and claws for medicinal products in Asia has fueled the illegal wildlife trade for years, but as they have become scarcer, the demand for lion bones has skyrocketed. Lion bones are sold as tiger products, making them highly prized among poachers.

Lion calmly sitting in tall grass and looking into the distance of an open field.

3. Poor Regulation of Legal Lion Trading

Despite claims that trophy hunting brings millions of dollars to local communities and contributes to conservation efforts, only about 3% of the revenue goes to those communities. And with lions listed as vulnerable, lion populations should be protected, not opened up to hunting.

Many suggest that the tourism industry has failed dismally in protecting lions and providing for locals, and this is often the case in terms of lion conservation.

Although legal hunting operations do generate substantial revenue, it does not compare to the billions generated by travelers who come to Africa to watch wildlife. If lions and other animals that draw tourists to the continent disappear, this source of income disappears too.

Despite the rising demand for wildlife tourism, poorly regulated trophy hunting threatens this billion-dollar industry which many African countries rely on to fuel their economy and provide jobs to locals.

Portrait of lion comfortably sitting at the top of a tree.
Lion looking straight into camera.

4. Disease

Lion populations have been irreparably affected by disease in the last few years.

Morbillivirus erupted in the Serengeti lion population and killed around 30% of the population (according to some estimates) and bovine tuberculosis has also devastated the lion population in South Africa. Estimates claim that up to 80% of the remaining population could be lost by 2030.

Lion populations also face more insidious threats.

The spread of feline herpesvirus (FeHV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) has devastated huge populations due to the low pathogeny of these diseases.

Many lions are already infected, and with such small populations remaining, they may not recover.

5. Climate change

Climate is a very grim, very real threat facing humans and animals, and lions are not exempt. Their survival depends on their ability to adapt to these changing ecosystems and the changing planet.

To adapt to shifting weather patterns and changing habitats, animals migrate to new places that offer more suitable conditions. Unfortunately, many of the lion populations across Africa are confined to game reserves and national parks and are dependent on humans for the management of this habitat.

As climate change intensifies and the land becomes more arid and inhospitable, maintaining these habitats becomes more complicated. If those habitats are lost too, lions will have nowhere to go. This will accelerate the decline of African lions and drive them to extinction in the blink of an eye.

Get Involved and Help Protect the Lions

Losing the king of the jungle, an animal that has become a symbol of Africa, is a grim prospect, but it doesn’t have to be so.

As a wildlife volunteer in Africa, you can contribute to wildlife conservation volunteer programs that have been set up to protect and conserve these great creatures. Whether you get involved with wildlife research or physical conservation, the work you and other volunteers do is essential for the sustainability of this great species.

Also read: My Experience on the Predator Research Internship

Three lions lounging together in front of a tree.

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