March 4, 2011- Nick Engelfried
Few animals have captured the imaginations of as many children and adults as the African lion, one of the largest land-dwelling predators on the planet. Yet faced with pressures from big game hunting, expansion of agriculture and grazing in their habitat, and outbreaks of disease caused by climate change, there is a real possibility lions could go extinct in the wild. In response to this threat, organizations like the Humane Society and Defenders of Wildlife are urging the US government to do its part to protect lions.
Lions are exceptional among felines not only because of their large size—rivaled only by the equally charismatic tiger—but because they are the only truly social big cats. Living in family groups, or “prides,” lions were originally found throughout the savannahs of central Africa. Estimates vary over exactly how many lions remain in Africa today, but the population has declined by at least fifty percent in the last several decades. In some parts of their range lions are shot or poisoned by ranchers because they feed on cattle, so the spread of agriculture threatens their continued existence.
Recently lions have also suffered from what may be early effects of climate change: in 1994 and 2001 severe droughts in Africa weakened the large hoofed mammals lions feed on, and made them susceptible to outbreaks of parasitic ticks. The ticks then spread to lions which fed on the original host animals, and the parasites turned out to harbor a disease that makes lions more susceptible to distemper. Distemper outbreaks in both 1994 and 2001 killed many more lions than usual.
As climate change continues, droughts and the resulting wildlife disease outbreaks are likely to become more and more common. Meanwhile lions face an additional threat: the continued practice of big game hunting. Many people think of trophy hunting for rare animals as a relict of the nineteenth century, but in fact hundreds of lions are still killed each year not by ranchers and villagers defending their livestock, but by visiting hunters from foreign countries. Over half of those lions killed as trophies end up being brought back to the United States. This means the US government has a real ability to impact the fate of the global lion population.
Listing African lions on the US Endangered Species Act could help save the big cat from extinction. US law doesn’t have the ability to directly control the hunting of lions in Africa, but Endangered Species Act protection would make it illegal to import dead lions or lion parts into the United States. If strictly enforced, such regulations could dramatically curtail lion trophy hunting. This month a coalition that includes Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society, and the International Fund for Animal Welfare has formally asked the US Department of the Interior to list the lion as endangered.
“This listing,” said Defenders of Wildlife in an email to supporters, “would provide a critical first step to help save lions by prohibiting U.S. imports of lions and lion parts, increasing conservation funding and helping foreign governments conserve lions.” Defenders of Wildlife has also started an online petition urging Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to grant lions Endangered Species Act protection.
Ultimately the fate of the lion, like that of so many other species, may depend on reducing worldwide carbon emissions and halting or slowing the effects of climate change. Meanwhile reducing the number of lions killed by trophy hunters would take immediate pressure off their populations. If the US Department of the Interior decides to list lions as endangered, it could have a positive impact on these amazing big cats throughout their natural range in Africa.
Photo credit: Peter Harrison