Today, the lion’s roar is more of a cry for help as lion populations across the African continent are in freefall. Over the past decade, conflict with humans (mainly pastoralists and ranchers) who view these big, beautiful cats as a threat to their herds (livestock is material and spiritual wealth as well as a means of subsistence to the continents herders).
African lions are classified as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Currently, only six or seven countries have more than 1,000 wild lions including Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and possibly Zambia.
As human occupation of Africa’s savannas expands, interactions between lions and humans are becoming more frequent. Lion prey species compete with livestock grazing in and around Protected Areas (PAs). In fact, encroachment of people and their herds into PAs is said to be one of the top three threats to lion populations in west, central, east and parts of southern Africa.
In addition, close contact with domestic herds often lead to lions killing livestock, which then provoke retaliatory killing of lions by herders and ranchers. This is usually done using deadly poisons laced inside the carcass of a cow.
Sadly, these are not isolated episodes.
Lions have been killed in a number of poisoning incidents in east Africa in recent years.
On the 20th March 2021, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), the government body responsible for wildlife conservation, reported the death of six lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park's (QENP) Ishasha sector, home to the famous and rare tree- climbing lions.
Along with the dead lions were nine dead vultures, which included one White-headed vulture and eight White-backed vulture, listed as a Critically Endangered Species'.
The fact that these raptors were also victims is a strong indicator that the animals succumbed to poisoning. And this was indeed the case.
When the perpetrators were finally caught, four local poachers from Kanungu District (where QENP is located) were in the possession of three bottles of Furadan, a chemical insecticide commonly used to poison wildlife.
Another item recovered during the arrest of the poachers was a two liter jerrycan of lion-fat oil. So it:s reasoned that the meat was either consumed by the poachers and/or sold to consumers of bushmeat in nearby villages.
It doesn't appear that the poachers were at all interested in the skeletal remains of the lions as three lion heads were found hidden in trees while the fourth head was buried with 15 lion legs under the same tree.
In May 2018, in an equally shocking episode, a pride of eleven tree-climbing lions, including eight lion cubs, were found dead near Hamukungu fishing village in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park Uganda after suspected poisoning. The three lionesses and eight cubs were found dead near Hamukungu fishing village in the park, a popular tourist destination.
Conservationists suspected that the lions were poisoned with Aldicarb; an insecticide better known as Temik, which he says is cheap and readily available. Aldicarb is a carbamate, which works by preventing a certain enzyme from breaking down the chemical substances that transmit nerve impulses. The build-up of this substance in nerve synapses can cause vomiting, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, and death. Death is usually caused by suffocation.
In 2017, four lions in Queen Elizabeth Park reportedly died by poisoning, and in May 2010, five lions were killed in the park in another possible poisoning case.
In fact, between May 2006 and July 2007, 15 lions were also killed in the area in attacks blamed on landless herdsmen defending their cattle.
In other lion poisoning incidents in east Africa, Carbofuran or Furadan has been the main culprit. Carbofuran is a valuable pesticide for agriculture- it keeps insects from destroying food crops like Irish potatoes, soybeans and maize (corn). It replaced DDT when DDT’s negative environmental impacts were realized back in the 1960s and early 1970s. But carbofuran is highly toxic to all wildlife including birds and fish.
Carbofuran has never been fully banned but it is no longer available in Kenya (protest by Kenyan conservationist Dr.Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect forced the manufacturer, FMC, to take it off the market in Kenya a decade ago (the Maasai once used it to poison what they saw as troublesome lions). But there is still cause for concern as the active ingredient, Carbofuran, is said to be a key ingredient in other China-made pesticides..
Prior to the ban, Furadan killed 35% percent of Kenya’s lions, while unspecified poisons killed another 3% percent, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Since 2002, when they numbered 2,749, the lion population has declined by 28% percent. In their National Conservation and Management strategy for Lions and Hyenas, the Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that only 1,970 lions remain across the country.
Reportedly, the African continent was once the home to hundreds of thousands of lions but
habitat loss, overexploitation, and human-wildlife conflict are some of the main culprits. In the past two decades, lion populations in West, Central and East Africa are collectively estimated to have declined by 60%.
In fact, there are about 20,000 lions left in the wild, according to H. Bauer and colleagues in their 2015 publication: "Panther Leo. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015", down from more than 200,000 a century ago.
Lion habitats have vanished due to a rise in human population and consequently to agricultural expansion to feed more human mouths. It’s estimated that lions have lost at least 75% of their original habitat over the past century. Today they occupy only about 8% of their historical range and are reported to have already vanished from 12 African countries of the 47 African countries in which they were once present.
(West African lions are considered Critically Endangered as they have reportedly lost almost all of their historical range.)
The need for more food has also contributed to decreasing lion numbers. Lions and humans enjoy the same wild cuisine. Hunting and poaching has caused a depletion of wild herbivores and ungulates such as eland, buffalo, impala, and zebra. Today, bushmeat is not only traditionally
consumed for subsistence in rural African communities, but also sold commercially within African urban markets and internationally to markets in the United States and Europe.
The demographics of acquiring wild meats have also changed. Hunting herbivores has expanded from Africa’s rich forests to the savannas. Vast areas are reported to have been emptied of large wildlife, especially the medium to large ungulates such as wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and impala on which lions subsist.
As if that weren’t enough, A ROARING TRADE? The Legal Trade in Pantheraleo Bones From Africa to East-Southeast Asia, a 2017 survey examining the pan-African trade in Lion parts, has highlighted “escalating and worrisome trends” that could increasingly pose a threat to the continent’s dwindling lion populations.
The African lion is the only big cat listed on CITES Appendix II, and the only one for which international commercial trade is legal under CITES. This has resulted in the widespread trade in African Lion body parts with items and products ranging from sport hunting trophies to curios sold in the tourist trade and lion bones that is increasing in demand in countries of East and Southeast Asia where it is used in Traditional Asian Medicine (African zootherapeutic practitioners and consumers mostly use fat, claws, skin and teeth for their healing rituals).
Conservationists are worried that the Asian demand might escalate to that of the demand for rhino horn (some believe that lion bones might even become a substitute for rhino horn in Traditional Asian Medicine) but only time and careful monitoring and data collecting of the legal (and perhaps a budding illegal) trade will tell.
In March 2021, lion conservation in QENP got a tremendous boost of support when Uganda was the recipient of five grants totalling 368,939 Euros for five conservation projects including Ecological Trends Alliance, which aims to curb the persecution of QENPs lions.
The Uganda Carnivore Program (UCP) is also playing an active role in lion conservation in the country. The UCP owes its continued existence to the numerous tragedies of poisoned lions in QENP. Originally meant to monitor and halt the spread of the Canine Distemper virus epidemic that was decimating wildlife across the border in Tanzania's iconic Serengeti National Park during the 1990s.
Another ray of hope on the pan-African scale has been the success of some big cat conservation initiatives in Southern Africa.
In Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where most lions live in fenced reserves that are heavily managed, lion populations have been growing. Lions in these reserves are provided with extensive vet care and even extra prey.
In May and June 2021, the government of South Africa started the process of putting an end to the commercialization of captive lions. This includes canned hunting that involves the shooting dead of lions in an artificial hunting environment- a cruel, inhumane and unethical practice, say experts.
In addition, there are probably hidden lion populations in Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Angola as the population, distribution and lifestyles of lions in these countries remain a mystery (years of prolonged armed conflict in these regions could have benefited lions inhabiting No- Mans-land areas.
Incidents of poisoning are not only affecting lion population but also declining populations of raptors. Raptors are also fighting for survival in the face of poisoning, technological advancement and big business interests. Raptors are umbrella species- they are important indicators that an ecosystem is doing well and providing enough food for all other species. This is because of their huge ranges.
Scientists of the Raptor Working Group of Nature Kenya has documented an alarming decline of up to 60% of Kenya’s vultures primarily due to the abuse of carbofuran. Poisonings of Kenya’s vulture populations have been recorded in Laikipa, Tsavo, Athi River, Masai Mara and Amboseli these birds are long lived and are essential to ecosystem functioning in Kenya’s wild areas. Scientist has documented significant declines of other birds of prey including eagles and owls.
Vultures are indispensable if humans want to keep the grasslands and savannas healthy. Without these raptors rotting carcasses would piled up, attracting disease and foul smells in places where tourists yearn to go. Sadly, vulture population, as is the case in India, has been dwindling to the extent that some are termed nearly extinct, threatened or vulnerable.
The Bearded vulture or Lammergeier as it is also known was once commonly found in the indigenous forests of Kenya such as the Mau, Cheranganis and Elgon.Carbofuran poisoning has also greatly reduced their numbers to the point of extinction.