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Are Lions Endangered?
A hundred years ago over 200,000 lions roamed Africa and Asia. Today, that number is about 20,000. That’s a 90% reduction in the population of one of the most charismatic creatures in the world.
So, is the lion endangered? It seems like it should be easy to say whether a species is endangered or not. The poor vaquita in the Sea of Cortez is an unarguably, critically endangered animal.
At last count, scientists think there are fewer than 19 individuals. Lions, however, are more complicated. They span dozens of countries on two continents.
In fact, some populations are of ‘least concern,’ whereas others are ‘critically endangered.’ How could the same species have all these designations?
Let’s think about populations instead of the entire species
The field of Conservation Science is a lot more than simply preventing the disappearance of entire species from the planet. Extinction is the worst-case scenario, but there are plenty of undesirable options between an unthreatened species and an extinct one.
The lion, for example, is currently extinct in 26 countries (possibly 33). Some of these countries include Morocco, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Congo.
These regional extinctions are significant. Each population of now-extinct lions had unique genes to thrive in a particular environment. When all lions from North Africa disappeared, all lions suited to live in that harsh, desert climate also disappeared.
Lions no longer roam anywhere in the Middle East, either. If humans decide to reintroduce lions to these desert areas, where will we choose the lions from? If, for example, a population of lions still lived in Egypt, then those would be the obvious candidates for reintroduction to the Middle East.
However, none of the currently extant (meaning existing, or alive) populations of lions knows these kinds of landscapes. Compared to the now-extinct North African lions, reintroduction with other African lions could be difficult. I will focus on the conservation status of four regions of lions that are currently alive.
The story of the Asiatic lion is tragic, but at the same time hopeful.
The Asiatic lion used to roam all of the Middle-East through the very southern tip of India. Like the Caspian Tiger, hunters systematically persecuted Asiatic lions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unlike the Caspian tiger, which went extinct, the Asiatic lion eked out a home in one small area of southeastern India, in the province of Gujarat.
Only 18 lions existed in 1893. (How people estimated lion populations in 1893 is beyond me.) An Indian ruler used this area as his private hunting grounds, which saved the lions from persecution.
The Indian government established the Gir Forest to protect these lions in 1965. Since then, areas around the Gir Forest have been protected as well. In 1994, the lion population was up to 284 lions. In 2010 it was 411 lions. The last census, in 2017, counted 650 lions.
These lions have reached their carrying capacity within their protected habitat. This means that new lions need to move outside of protected areas, into areas more densely populated and used by humans.
About a third of the lions now live in areas among villages and people. The lions live in and around 1000 villages in India.
This crowding increases the potential for human-lion conflict. However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the most established group for conservation ratings, uplisted the Asiatic lion from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Endangered’ in 2008.
Future of the Indian Lion?
While this population is currently healthy, it is still vulnerable to many risks. Canine distemper virus, which lions can contract from encounters with dogs, has begun to affect this lion population.
Last year, it killed 34 lions. This virus is very contagious and could wreak havoc on the lion population in a matter of weeks under the wrong circumstances.
Also, if the Gir Forest burns or gets affected by some natural disaster, the population would be at risk because they have nowhere else to go.
The next step for Indian lion conservation is to establish a second population somewhere else in the country. This way, if one population faces a large setback, it can be helped by the second population. Asiatic lions are currently listed as endangered.
Will the lions disappear?
It’s worth noting that the IUCN Redlist lists the lion as threatened. While it’s likely we will see populations go extinct in the near future, the complete disappearance of lions from the planet is unlikely.
This is both a hopeful and anxiety-provoking situation with no easy answers.
If you want to practice conservation yourself, start closer to home rather than trying to save the lions. They aren’t in our backyard, and other people, such as locals and African biologists, understand them much better than we do.