Text and photos by Sally Kneidel, PhD
A lion we spotted on a kill in South Africa. Note the blood on his lower jaw.
Unfortunately, cats are among the hardest of the big animals to find, even in reserves and parks like South Africa's Kruger National Park.
We were lucky this past June to come across a couple of adult male lions on the carcass of a big Cape Buffalo, just outside of Kruger in a protected area that's part of "Greater Kruger." The carcass was only 10 feet from the sandy road we were driving down. We couldn't get a clear shot of the carcass because of the bushes and grasses in the way. But we waited and we did get clear shots of the lions when they got up to stretch and sleep.
One of the lions (left) pulling meat from what's left of the Cape Buffalo carcass. You can see the open body cavity on the right, and the buffalo's gray skin still covering the rib cage.
We came across the same lions at the same spot the next day (below). Again, one of them was napping in the road, too full and sleepy to even get up to urinate. Instead he urinated where he lay (as we watched) and the urine pooled around his rear end.
What the heck is going on????
It's mostly about conflict with humans. As human populations in sub-Saharan Africa expand, the land left for prey populations decreases. A single pride of lions requires a hunting territory of 8 - 154 sq miles (20-400 sq km), depending on the density of prey animals. Lions generally eat the commonest hoofed animals nearby - impala, wildebeest, zebra - all grazers that need a lot of grazing space. Loss of habitat due to human population growth and human activities is the primary cause of the decrease in lion numbers in Africa. Jeff Corwin says that lions have lost 80% of their habitat in the last century.
African lions are now officially listed as Endangered (West African subspecies) and Vulnerable (East and Southern African subspecies) by the World Conservation Union and are on Appendix II of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) list.
But loss of habitat is not the only cause; other factors play a role in their decline. As the human population increases, so does the number of livestock. In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai people graze their cattle on the same lands where lions roam, or have roamed. Cattle are equivalent to wealth and status for the Maasai. When prey is not plentiful, some lions will kill livestock. Traditionally Maasai have eliminated such lions by hunting them with spears. Nowadays though, the lions can be eliminated much more easily by poisoning carcasses with a cheap and common crop pesticide, Furadan, and then leaving the poisoned carcasses out for lions to take. (Lions are scavengers as well as predators.) In March of 2009, the TV news program "60 Minutes" ran a story on the American chemical Furadan: "Poison Takes Toll on Africa's Lions." With hidden cameras, reporters documented that Furadan was commonly available in Kenyan shops that were miles from any cropland, where shopkeepers chuckled when asked what the Furadan was for. After the story aired on national TV in the U.S., the American manufacturer promised to stop all sales of Furadan in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. In a July 25 update online, the 60 Minutes staff report that Furadan has been pulled from the shelves in Kenya, but not in neighboring Tanzania or Uganda.
Disease is also a serious problem for lions. We were told by several wildlife guides and scientists in Kruger that lions in South Africa are suffering from tuberculosis contracted from cattle. We were told that TB doesn't kill them immediately, but weakens them and shortens their life span. In addition, according to The Lion Foundation, 90% of free-roaming lions in Botswana are infected with FIV, the feline equivalent of HIV. And the lions of the Serengeti decreased around 30% after a 1997 outbreak of canine distemper.
What's the problem?? How'd we get here?
The problem ultimately is poverty, and an uneven distribution of wealth and resources in the world. Poverty means...
- Families whose survival is dependent on their livestock will and must protect their domestic animals from predators.
- Poverty leads to rapid population growth and overgrazing, both of which contribute to habitat loss for prey and predators.
- When local families are impoverished, the breadwinners are of course tempted to make money selling lions to shooting ranches, where Europeans, Americans, and Asians pay thousands to shoot big lions (and other big animals).
Practical short-term solutions include reimbursing herders or livestock owners for animals that are lost to predation, which is now happening in some places. Other solutions include recruiting Maasai and others in agrarian or herding communities into clubs or groups such as the Lion Guardians of Kenya, who stand guard and alert their neighbors when predators are nearby.
Ultimately the broader solution is support and assistance for the families and communities of Africa. That means sustainable employment that gives local people an incentive to preserve their natural resources, including lions. We need to empower women with education and jobs; when women are empowered, they choose to have smaller families, which leads to higher incomes and more opportunities for their children. People with choices and opportunities don't have to poison lions or sell lions to shooting ranches.
One thing we can do is to support organizations that are working on solutions - organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund. If you know others, write a comment after this post and tell me.
Another thing we can do is this: when we travel, we can make sure that our travel dollars go to local people, not international chains that will funnel the money to stockholders in other countries. It's not that hard to do. Americans spend 12 billion dollars a year in Africa. Let's put it in the hands of the local people.
This post now appears on The Courier News online, a member of the Chicago Sun-Times News Group and on www.basilandspice.com, the #1 Syndicated Site for Authors and Book Views. This post is also now linked to Google News (a time-senstive link.)
Enkosini Wildlife Sanctuary/The Lion Foundation
Poison Takes Toll on Africa's Lions: Kenyan Cattle Herders Are Using the American Pesticide Furadan to Kill the Predators. 60 Minutes. CBS News. July 25, 2009.
Investigation Earth with Jeff Corwin. Planet Green TV network. July 27, 2009.
Nicholas Bakalar. 2005. Lions in South Africa Pressured by TB Outbreak, Hunters. National Geographic News.
Richard D. Estes. Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals. Chelsea Green Publishing Co.
Key words: Kruger National Park African lions tuberculosis lions declining South Africa wildlife trophy hunting loss of habitat population growth Furadan Jeff Corwin