For East Africa's lions, is the future bright?
Posted Friday, May 3 2013 at 17:56
A National Geographic advertisement captures it succinctly: “The cat’s hunting abilities are outstanding; he actively stalks his prey,” says the commentator. But the video shows a domestic cat chasing a little red laser light in a plush home with pristine white sofas. The message: If we do not do something fast to conserve the big felines, domestic cats might have to be used as a stand-in, and these are the kind of videos that the National Geographic will be forced to make to illustrate the life of lions, tigers, cheetahs and leopards.
East Africa is famous for its wildlife, and lions are at the top of the hierarchy. But researchers fear that lions may be extinct in a few decades.
Five decades later
The decline in Africa’s lion populations is staggering. Niels Morgensen, who founded Mara Naboisho Lion Project in Kenya in 2011, says Africa had 100,000 lions in 1960. Five decades later, there are just 30,000 left.
This decline points to what once would have seemed ludicrous, an inevitable extinction of the king of the jungle.
This is not an unlikely scenario. In 2010, the Barbary lion of North Africa, one of the eight African lion sub-species, was declared extinct in the wild. It had a long history of suffering at the hands of humans.
The earliest records show that ancient Egyptians killed the Barbary lions as they began to settle down to sedentary lives. The Barbary lion was even taken to Europe, especially Italy where ancient Romans used them in gladiator fights.
In the 12th century, King John of England established a zoo, one of the oldest in the world, which was later relocated to the Tower of London. When the tower’s moat was excavated in the 1930s, it revealed two medieval lion skulls of the Barbary lion.
With the spread of the Arabs in North Africa, the Barbary lion was seen as a nuisance and killed. Now, none exist in the wild.
Ten years ago, Kenya had 15,000 lions. Today, the population is a paltry 2,500 lions.
Niels Morgensen, working on his doctorate degree and curious about lions’ behaviour inside and outside protected areas in the Mara — renowned as the “big cat country” — studied how livestock affects them.
Attacks on cattle by lions are the bane of pastoral communities like the Maasai and Samburu. When they strike, the herders retaliate by killing the offending animals.
The need to save the king of beasts has spurred researchers and wildlife conservationists to seek solutions outside the confines of state-managed parks and reserves. They are now focusing on conservancies.