By Dr. Becker
African lion populations have declined by up to 75 percent since 1980, according to Adam M. Roberts, CEO of animal advocacy non-profit organization Born Free USA and international wildlife charity Born Free Foundation.
These majestic creatures occupy just 8 percent of their historic range, and were thought to be locally extinct in some areas, such as Sudan. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies lions as vulnerable, which means they face a high risk of extinction in the wild.
Amidst all of these concerning statistics came a ray of hope, however, as an expedition supported by Born Free USA and Born Free Foundation discovered a previously unconfirmed population of lions in Ethiopia.
Expedition Uncovers ‘Lost Lions’ in Ethiopia
The expedition, led by Hans Bauer, Ph.D., a lion conservationist with Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), took place in Alatash National Park in northwest Ethiopia, near the Ethiopia-Sudan border.
While locals reportedly were aware of lions in the area, definitive evidence of their existence had escaped researchers — until now. The expedition team uncovered “original and undisputable” evidence of lions in the area, including camera trap images and lion tracks.
What’s more, they believe the lions likely cover an even larger range than they explored and may live in neighboring Sudan as well, in an area called Dinder National Park. Bauer explained in a Born Free press release:1
“Lions are definitely present in Alatash National Park and in Dinder National Park. Lion presence in Alatash has not previously been confirmed in meetings at the national or international level.
Considering the relative ease with which lion signs were observed, it is likely that they are resident throughout Alatash and Dinder.
Due to limited surface water, prey densities are low and lion densities are likely to be low. We may conservatively assume a density in the range of one to two lions per 100 square kilometers.
On a total surface area of about 10,000 square kilometers, this would mean a population of 100 to 200 lions for the entire ecosystem, of which 27 to 54 would be in Alatash.”
‘Exciting News’ for Lions’ Future
Born Free CEO Roberts called the finding “exciting news” and rightly stated the discovery is “hugely important” for securing lions’ future. Next steps will include communicating with the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan to conserve the lions’ range and protect the newly discovered population. Roberts stated:2
“With lion numbers in steep decline across most of the African continent, the discovery of previously unconfirmed populations is hugely important — especially in Ethiopia, whose government is a significant conservation ally.
We need to do all we can to protect these animals and the ecosystem on which they depend, along with all the other remaining lions across Africa, so we can reverse the declines and secure their future."
Lions once lived in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, North America and Northern India. Now lions primarily live in Africa, aside from a small group (about 300) of Asiatic lions that live in India’s Gir Forest National Park.
The greatest threats facing lions are habitat loss, loss of prey (largely due to bushmeat trade) and human-lion conflict, including sport hunting and retaliation kills, in which lions are killed after attacking area livestock.3
To raise awareness of the urgent need to protect lions, Born Free USA has declared 2016 the Year of the Lion. It’s thought that fewer than 20,000 lions remain in Africa today.4
Research published by Bauer and colleagues in 2015 revealed that lion populations in West and Central Africa would decline by 50 percent in the next two decades unless major conservation efforts are initiated.5
In southern Africa, lion-conservation efforts, including the introduction of lions to small, fenced, intensively managed, and funded reserves, have been successful, showing that conservation efforts are needed to halt population declines in the rest of the continent.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded:6
“If management budgets for wild lands cannot keep pace with mounting levels of threat, the species may rely increasingly on these southern African areas and may no longer be a flagship species of the once vast natural ecosystems across the rest of the continent.”
Intriguing Facts About Lions
Lions are revered for their courage and strength — and rightly so. A lion’s roar can be heard from more than 5 miles away, which is the loudest roar of any big cat species!7 They’re also the only cats that live in social groups called prides. A pride is made up of up to three males, about 12 females and their young.8
Female lions, sisters, live together for life. Their female cubs also stay with the pride, even after they’re grown, but male cubs must venture out on their own once they’ve reached maturity.
Also unusual in the animal kingdom, female lions do the hunting (usually in groups) while male lions stay home and watch over the pride. The males, however, are first to eat when the female lions come home with their kill. Male lions are responsible for defending the pride’s territory, which may encompass up to 100 square miles.
In the video below, you can watch as Jora and Black, two former circus lions from Bulgaria, get their first taste of freedom. The lions were rescued by Born Free in 2015 and now live in the Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa.