When compared to the alarming decline of elephants and rhinos, lions may seem to be of little concern when it comes to conservation. However the IUCN regards lions as a vulnerable species and while experts disagree on the numbers, lion populations have declined significantly in the last few decades. So much so that it is believed they may be extinct by the year 2050.
Lions face several challenges when it comes to their continued survival such as:
The steady march of civilisation has had a devastating impact on lion populations. These creatures which once dominated three continents are now restricted almost solely to Africa.
Lions are simply not compatible with human activities such as commerce and agriculture. Crops and livestock take up land which was once roamed by lions and their prey species, and any predator which inadvertently kills a valuable domestic animal usually meets with an unpleasant end.
Thus, most wild lions are now contained within protected fenced areas where they can exist in relative freedom and in as natural a state as possible.
This brings with it other concerns, such as overbreeding and interbreeding. In truly wild circumstances cub mortality is high due to natural causes, but in the smaller reserves the survival rate of youngsters can be as much as 100%. This throws the natural order of things out of kilter and ultimately leads to diminishing prey species – a no win situation.
Fortunately several reserves, Thornybush included, have taken to lion contraception (as opposed to culling) which limits both of these negative effects. By careful relocation of lions among these protected areas a degree of genetic diversity can also be maintained for now.
This restriction of lion numbers could prove disastrous in the event of an epidemic, such as bovine tuberculosis, which rears its ugly head every so often in the Kruger National Park.
The evils of poaching need no explanation but apart from direct hits, lions also succumb to traps and snares set for other animals and face diminishing food sources as their prey species are hunted for bushmeat. The best answer that conservation has for this scourge is to educate local people and improve their lot by involving them in the gains of tourism. These initiatives have met with varying success.
Scientists and conservationists continue to search for better ways to improve the lot of the lion and to ensure healthy populations of these iconic African animals for future generations to enjoy.