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Lion population in Africa down by 43 per cent in 21 years

Lions at Maasai Mara. – Photo: Sivasish Thakur
 MAASAI MARA (KENYA), Aug 19 - Even as more and more tourists are flocking to the African national parks and reserves to see the continent’s signature animal, the lion is losing ground in the face of habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching.

Across the continent, lion population has decreased by an alarming 43 per cent in the past 21 years, while the lion has become regionally extinct in 15 countries. The current population of lions in Africa is estimated around 23,000.

According to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) estimates, lion population in the country has dwindled to some 2,000 from the count of 2,749 in 2002. Kenya, together with the neighbouring Tanzania (it has Africa’s biggest lion population), accounts for the continent’s maximum lion numbers. While the Serengeti (Tanzania)-Mara lion area is estimated to contain 3,673 lions in 35,852 sq km area, the Tsavo-Mkomazi (Tanzania) lion area shelters 800 lions in 39,216 sq km area.

“Lion numbers are plummeting across all lion-bearing areas due to habitat loss and fragmentation, and killing by humans – retaliatory killing by pastoral communities over livestock loss, as well as poaching. Various programmes aimed at involving communities in conservation have eased the situation at places but the larger issue persists,” a KWS official said.

According to KWS data, the country is losing close to a hundred lions every year since the past decade.

While an exploding population in the country and the consequent needs of ‘development’ have resulted in encroachment and conversion of forestland into roads, cropland and settlement, no less damaging have been the dangers stemming from killing of lions triggered by human-wildlife conflict.

“Unlike in some countries where restricted trophy hunting is allowed, killing of lions is totally banned in Kenya. Yet we are losing lions in good numbers annually, which is very disturbing,” the official added.

KWS estimates 825 lions in the Maasai Mara part of the Serengeti-Mara landscape and 675 lions in the Tsavo ecosystem, constituting the bulk of the lion population in the country.

Notwithstanding interventions in the form of collaborative programmes by the government and NGOs to involve local communities living near forest fringes in conservation, retaliatory killing of lions through poisoning and spearing by pastoral tribes such as the Maasais is still a harsh reality.

“Lion raids on our cattle are not uncommon and there had been killings of lions in such situations. However, things have eased to a great extent now because we are getting quick compensation. The animal-proof barriers called bomas and livestock enclosures are also being modified and strengthened with the support of the government and voluntary bodies,” Richard, a Maasai warrior (called moran) of a village near Maasai Mara said.

He, however, added that not all the Maasai-dominated areas have seen the interventions and that “retaliatory killing might be on across places”.

“You cannot really blame the people for such killings because our cattle are worth a fortune to us and losing them drastically affects our livelihood. Many Maasais have now almost given up their time-tested ritual of killing lions for their entry into the moran clan. The realisation of protecting the lion and promoting tourism is also having a positive impact on conservation. The government and NGOs should reach out to more communities for reducing the human-wildlife conflict,” he said.

Wildlife managers believe that strengthening the anti-poaching network was another imperative to secure long-term conservation of the big cat. “Lions are hunted for their claws, teeth and skin, the illegality fuelled by a big demand in South Asian countries. We are initiating many innovative steps but more needs to be done,” the official said.

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