The lion’s last roar? Kenya wakes up to new threat to its big cats

Sunday April 17 2011

Mighty as they are, lions are a vulnerable lot, says Dr Charles Musyoki, the Kenya Wildlife Service scientist in charge of “other threatened species” apart from elephants and rhinos.

In less than a century, countries like Nigeria have lost all their wild lions. The same goes for Cameroon.

It’s a story replicated in many West African countries.

The two strongholds for free ranging lions in the world today are Kenya and Tanzania.

“But,” warns the scientist, “at the current rate of decline, lions in Kenya will be extinct in 20 years.”

In light of this, Kenya is the first country to put in place strategic plans to save its wild cats.

In 2009, a large carnivore strategic plan was launched for the lion, cheetah, spotted and striped hyenas and the African wild dog.

Missing in it, for now, is the leopard — for it’s hard to verify the cat’s population as it is very elusive.

Dr Musyoki gives the current inventory of two other big carnivores in Kenya — striped hyena (about 1,000); and spotted hyena (4,000 in 1988, but an update is needed).

Kenya and Egypt lead the pack in the numbers of striped hyenas.

In 2002, the lion population was estimated at 2,700. In 2009, the number fell to below 2,000 — a decline of 100 lions per year.

“In Kenya, there are sub-populations of lions. In the Masai Mara, the last census yielded 825; Tsavo – 675; Laikipia – 230; Meru Conservation Area – 40; Samburu-Isiolo – 100 and on the borders of Ethiopia and Somalia – 100. That brings the total to 1,970,” he said.

The lions of Laikipia, Samburu and the neighbouring areas are outside the protected zones.

It has come to light that lion parts — such as bones, hair, teeth and claws — are in high demand in the Far East, replacing the traditional trade in tiger parts since the crash in tiger numbers this century.

The future is equally grim for the cheetah. The 1,160 cheetahs left in Kenya today cover only 23 per cent of the historic range, which until independence in 1963 covered most of Kenya, save for the mountains.

“Of that population, 50 per cent share the Mara-Serengeti (Tanzania) ecosystem, while 80 per cent live outside the protected areas,” Musyoki says. The challenge is how to secure that 80 per cent of habitat for the spotted sphinx.”

“The African wild dog population is 845, just 13 per cent of the canine’s historic range,” says Dr Musyoki.

The good news is that the numbers are increasing — as the painted dog is not being killed in the numbers it was before on the grounds that it is vermin.

The African wild dog is found only in Africa.

The leopard, though listed as the most widespread of the cats (it’s found in the snows of the Himalayas and even in the deserts of Namibia) is globally listed under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list as of “least concern.” But, in fact, it is in serious decline regionally.

The conflicting listing — global and regional — puts the cat at a disadvantage in regard to protection.

“The current figures are lacking,” says Dr Musyoki, “but should focus on the species that are perceived as ‘of least concern.’”

These include animals such as Grevy’s zebra, Reticulated giraffe and sable and roan antelopes.”

In March, a strategic plan was launched for sea turtles — creatures that have outlived the dinosaur.

Dr Musyoki justifies the need for strategic plans on the success of elephant and rhino conservation efforts.

These have had strategic plans for the past 20 years, leading to a rise in numbers. The two mega-herbivores were on the verge of extinction in the 1980s in Kenya.

Today, with strategic planning and enforcement, their populations have risen to respectable levels where one can see elephant herds and a few rhinos in national parks like Meru and Tsavo.

The poaching era lasted two decades — from the start of 1970s to the end of the 1980. It devastated both the economy and the ecosystems.

Tourism plunged and grasslands reverted to impenetrable scrub. Today there are 35,000 elephants from an all-time low of 16,000 in 1989.

The indigenous black rhino has increased from a paltry 300 to almost 700.

Pandora’s paradox

Though there is need to focus on the threatened carnivores, they also create many problems, says Musyoki.

“There are human-wildlife conflicts as the carnivores prey on livestock.”

In the case of lions, their population has dropped dramatically because of poison-laced carcasses that herders leave behind as bait.

The poisoning has had a roller coast effect, such as a 96 per cent decline in vulture populations in less than two decades.

Just 0.6 grammes of Furadan — a lethal agro-pesticide preferred by 88 per cent of livestock owners — can kill a full grown 250kg lion in a few minutes.

It has been largely responsible for the death of over 71 lions, 15 hyenas, two silver backed jackals and 400 vultures between 2002 and 2009.

Following public outcry, US manufacturers FMG withdrew all existing stocks from the market.

Unfortunately, the pesticide is now manufactured in the Far East and enters East Africa by various names.

“Since 2002, KWS has been documenting all lion mortalities,” says Musyoki. “Some 27 per cent is by poisoning, 33 per cent by spearing, 20 per cent due to ‘problem-animal control’ and 14 per cent due to other causes.

For instance, the Kenya Wildlife Service culls carnivores such as lions that have become “habitual offenders” instead of moving the problem elsewhere.

The list of threats to wild animals reads: habitat loss, fast human population growth, human-wildlife conflict as humans move closer to wildlife habitats, predation on livestock and poor tourist management of wildlife parks.

Musyoki cites the common habit of tour vans surrounding the big cats once they are spotted.

There have even been cases of vehicles spoiling the hunt for the carnivores — which means a missed meal.

Other threats include animals like wild dogs abandoning their dens and puppies due to human disturbance; persecution, diseases such as rabies and canine distemper, and trade in live animals, including bushmeat.

“We have cases of cheetah cubs being poached for sale,” says Musyoki.

Protecting the large carnivores poses many complex problems, says Musyoki.

“Government partnership is vital. We should engage scientists and conservation biologists for sound management plans.

“The strategy plan addresses issues such as: Conserving the carnivores given the existing ecological conditions and their prey species, and eliminating conflict between humans and wildlife. It also defines carnivore zones outside protected areas.

“The strategy looks at ways of tolerating wildlife on community land, such as how to turn a threat into a positive economic benefit; enhancing ‘problem animal’ management; and educating livestock owners on livestock husbandry to decrease risks.

“The predator-proof bomas (shelters) in the Amboseli are a huge success. We’re looking at mechanisms for local communities to establish conservancies.

“It’s also important to monitor the numbers,” continues the scientist, “in order to know what is happening to the ecosystems and what remedial measures should be taken.

Following a Ksh 20 million ($250,000) elephant aerial census in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem, a lion census in the same area is scheduled for later this year.

In July, three lions in the Nairobi National Park will be collared with GPS tags to help define their range.

Land ownership has always been a touchy issue.

“Historically, it has been felt that land was taken from people for wildlife. But we don’t want to take land away from people. We want people to open up conservancies.

“There are gaps in the information. For example with the rhino programme, we know how many are born and how many die. But for the carnivores, we don’t know much. Still, we’re getting there, with the launch of the strategic plan.