Melissa Simpson for National Geographic
Published September 2, 2013
Editor’s note: Melissa Simpson is the director of science-based wildlife conservation for the Safari Club International Foundation.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering a petition from several animal rights groups to place the African lion on the list of endangered species. By law, species are to be placed on that list only when the Fish and Wildlife Service determines that they are currently “in danger of extinction.” In an attempt to garner support for the petition, a proponent claimed recently that the lion is “in danger of disappearing in our lifetimes.”
Is the condition of the lion really that dire? Fortunately, the most recent scientific data say no. A comprehensive study published last December concluded that there are between 32,000 and 35,000 lions living in the wild in Africa. The lion population is spread across 27 countries, with nine countries having populations of at least 1,000 lions. (See “The Serengeti Lion.”)
Of greatest significance is the fact that 24,000 of the lions, which is at least 68 percent of the total population, live in what the study terms “strongholds.”
Strongholds are areas that meet “the necessary requirements for [the] long-term viability” of their lion populations.
To qualify as a stronghold, an area must meet these three criteria:
1) a population of at least 500 lions;
2) be legally protected as lion habitat, or be an area where hunting is managed; and
3) contain a population of lions whose numbers are either stable or increasing.
There are ten such areas in Africa. According to the study, the lion populations living in these areas are “large, stable, and well protected,” and the populations are therefore “likely to persist into the foreseeable future.”
Even the petition itself acknowledges that “one-third of all the lions on the continent could be considered secure under present conservation measures.”
Lions: Here to Stay
This is simply not the portrait of a species that is “in danger of disappearing in our lifetimes.” The best scientific data do not support the notion that the lion is currently in danger of extinction.
Indeed, at a recent lion workshop convened by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the three lion experts invited to address the assembly—Paula White, director of the Zambia Lion Project; Jason Riggio, principal author of the study cited above; and Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota—were unanimous in their opinion that the lion is not currently in danger of extinction.
If the Fish and Wildlife Service were to take regulatory action and put the African lion on the Endangered Species list, it would be in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Such an overreaching decision would deprive the countries that grapple with lion management the resources they need the most. And the most essential resource is money.
According to Dennis Ikanda, director of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute’s Kingupira Research Centre, his country generated $75 million in lion hunting alone from 2008 to 2011.
Tanzania also has 15 photo-safari areas, which have been lauded as a non-consumptive alternative to traditional hunting tourism. Unfortunately, only 4 of the 15 photo-safari areas are financially viable. The remaining 11 are subsidized by hunter-generated funds. So without the financial resources provided by hunters to protect habitat and stop poachers, there would be no infrastructure for wildlife management.
The Safari Club International Foundation recognizes that saying that the lion is not currently in danger of extinction is not the same as saying that the lion does not face challenges. The many people and governments, both in Africa and worldwide, who care about the lion must continue to work diligently to address those challenges.
We welcome the recent announcement by U.S. President Barack Obama that he will establish a Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking to develop a strategy for supporting global anti-poaching efforts. Poaching of lions, by definition illegal, is a problem for the sustainability of the population. With this announcement, the President has taken a step to elevate the response to the threat that illegal poaching poses for all wildlife.