(Ep. 3/4) Talking Wild Lion Conservation with Kevin Richardson

Lioness in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

📸 Josh Robertson

Josh: "Could you tell us a little bit about the conservation of lions in the wild?"

Kevin: “It’s not happy homes and gardens for lions in the wild, as many people around the world still to this day believe. I think the biggest problem with lions, as a whole, is that they seem to fall into this blind-spot of conservation. So, the people in the know, know the problems. But the people we need to reach out to think there are no worries for lions. They went to South Africa last year and they saw plenty of lions on their Safari - they went to Kruger, or Madikwe, or Pilanesberg, or wherever they went, and they saw lions. So, they are shocked when you tell them that lions are threatened and that they’ve lost half their numbers in the past 50 years and their numbers have dropped to as little as 15,000 in the wild throughout Africa and they’ve lost >90% of their former range. And people are staggered you know, they think that’s impossible.

📸 Panthera

I think it’s very complicated for lions, because in different areas/regions lions are faring differently. So, if you look at central, West and North Africa - it’s dismal. If you look at East Africa, lion numbers are plummeting, and that’s where we’re seeing the biggest knock. But if you come to South Africa, lion numbers are stable, if not increasing slightly. So, it’s very confusing. I think that’s the problem - how do we get this clear message out that lions are, I think should be endangered, but they’re actually listed as vulnerable. But they were not so long ago listed as the least concern (on the IUCN Red List). So, it’s a message that’s very hard to get out and largely because of the captive lion industry, where we have what is estimated to be 11,000 - 12,000 lions in captivity. That’s just in South Africa. So, people come to South Africa, and wherever they go there are lions. So, as you can imagine, they (tourists) think to themselves 'there’s nothing wrong with lions… it’s not like rhino'. But there are more white rhino in South Africa than there are lions in the entire continent of Africa.

📸 Roberto Isotti

Josh: “Wow. So why is it do you think that lions' numbers are increasing in South Africa, but dwindling in other parts of Africa, like central, West, and East Africa?"

Kevin: "It’s a good question… and it has an answer. But it’s a contentious issue, and it’s a hot topic of debate, as is everything to do with lions in this arena.

Probably the biggest reason is because our lions live largely in fenced protected areas. So, South Africa has a conservation model that has been around for many many years, stating that we should keep people from animals and animals from people. Hence, we have these reserves that have boundaries and animals stay within these boundaries. Even Kruger National Park has porous boundaries. But nevertheless, there is still, especially in the conflict areas, a definite demarcation between communities and animals. Which obviously has other unintended consequences, because as nature intended, lions and animals should be free ranging not kept in enclosed areas. So, some would argue that Kruger National Park, even though it’s the size of Israel, is still enclosed on certain boundaries, and most of our other parks are totally closed. What we find is that when lions are enclosed and protected, they do well. You don’t need to do anything to allow lions to do what they do naturally. They breed quite prolifically and as long as they’ve got prey and some space, they do quite well.

📸 Martin Harvey

East Africa, where we’re seeing big decreases in lion populations, is where we see a huge amount of conflict. There are a lot of burgeoning human populations spilling over into natural systems, and with that comes human-lion conflict, and when there’s conflict we know who’s going to lose that battle… it’s always the lion. And you know, Kenya for example doesn’t have trophy hunting. They banned hunting back in the 80’s. Tanzania is more pro-hunting, but in both countries we see a decline in lions - proportionately the same. It’s even disingenuous to imply that trophy hunting is the main cause of the demise of lion populations… it’s not. It’s lack of habitat. Habitat loss is THE biggest problem that, not just lions, all animals face. And because lions are the apex, indicator species, they’re the first to feel it – but if they’re wiped out of areas where they once occurred, unfortunately it doesn’t look good for the rest of the species falling down that pyramid."

📸 Josh Robertson

Josh: "Yeah, I think you raised some really great points there, I couldn’t agree more. We touched a lot there on the negatives there, but can you just talk about why lions are good for people and why they’re good for the environment?"

Kevin: "Yeah, where do I start! The positives of having lions are they are obviously an iconic species. They’ve been revered by humans since the dawn of mankind. If you go around the world, it’s not elephants that adorn the streets of major cities, it’s always a lion. You can go from São Paulo to China to the UK, and it’s always a statue of a lion. And it’s not a tiger either, so it’s not just because lions are big cats. They have always been revered by people. Now, obviously you can’t go to communities and say man has always revered lions, so you should protect them!

You know, the elephant in the room, that no one seems to want to talk about, I think is overpopulation of humans. And unfortunately, in developing countries like Africa, it’s probably in many respects at its worst. So, it’s a real difficult one when you start saying to people you need to protect these lions over your livelihood. It’s very easy for a privileged westerner like myself to come at the problem from the animal’s perspective, but I’ve always tried to, from a conservation standpoint, tried to see both sides of the equation. And quite frankly, when you go out to these rural parts of Africa, when you see how difficult and how tough it is, you’re not going to be too pleased when a lion takes out your cow, because that’s your cash.