King of the Jungle is Dying?

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Over the past two decades, the worldwide population of lions has fallen from over 200,000 to approximately 35,000 presently.

In Kenya, they have reduced from 10,000 to 2,000 over the same period.

The once-feared king of the jungle is quickly being pushed out of his habitat.

With the population of humans growing faster than any other species of animal, the lion, like many other wild game, is slowly being driven out of existence.

The endless savannah that always seemed to meet the sky is no more.

Instead, there has been a steady influx of human beings in total disregard for the other occupants of the land, as metal and glass structures rapidly replace the acacia trees on the skyline.

The conflict between man and lion is not a recent phenomenon.

In March 1898 as Indian workers were busy building a bridge for the East African Railway line over the River Tsavo, two male lions which later came to be known as the Man Eaters of Tsavo were picking them off one by one.

It is estimated that the pair - each lion measured more than nine feet - hunted down and killed more than 130 people in a span of nine months.

Maasai warriors

More than a century later, in 2003, the tables were turned when Maasai warriors killed 10 lions in one week following repeated attacks on their cattle in Kitengela on the outskirts of Nairobi.

According to Ogeto Mwebi, a research scientist with the National Museums of Kenya, some sub-species like the desert lion, which thrived in North Africa, have become extinct.

The vulnerability of the lion has been exposed and the superiority it once held over all living things has shifted to its greatest predator: man.

"The human population has posed the main threat to the survival of the lion. In many ways man has contributed to the destruction of both the lion and its habitat," Mr Mwebi said.

Communities, most of them pastoral, have organised hunting parties targeting lions which they believe kill their livestock. The pastoralists see no value in protecting the big cats.

For them, it makes more sense to kill the lions before they prey on their herds of cattle.

Smuggled into Europe

With poaching still rampant in Kenya's game parks and reserves, lions often wander into traps laid for bigger animals like rhinos and elephants.

The traps decapitate the lions, leaving them to bleed to death. The poachers then get the animals' skins for sale to game trophy collectors and dispose of the orphaned cubs as pets.

Lion cubs have been intercepted on their way to the non-secured ports of Somalia from where they are smuggled into Europe.

This journey, according to game warder Eunice Kiarie, is often treacherous.

The poachers first pull out the cubs' teeth and severe their claws to create a less dangerous animal that can be easily domesticated.

This is not the only way that one of the world's big five is killed, said Dr Charles Musyoki, a research scientist with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

He says farmers who have lost a part of their herd to lions lace an animal carcass with pesticide, then leave it for the lions that later feed on it and die a slow, painful death.

High demand for land by a growing human population has destroyed much of the lions' habitat.

It is estimated that in Africa alone, 30 per cent of the natural ecosystem of the lion has been taken over by man.

"Areas like Kajiado, Narok, Laikipia and Kitengela are now major settlement zones," Mr Mwebi said. "Some of these settlements end up cutting off the migration paths of the lions."

When these paths are blocked, prides cannot move freely from one side of the savannah to the other.

Interaction with neighbouring prides is limited, resulting in in-breeding.

Eventually, Mr Mwebi said, a recessive gene found in that pride becomes dominant and the species weakens.

But human beings are not entirely responsible for the reduction of the lion population.

Nature also plays a part. Although food shortage has become more severe in some parts of Kenya, lions have been facing this problem for at least the last five years.

The number of herbivores like zebra and antelope that form a major part of the lion's diet has been on the decline.

This scarcity has created an unhealthy competition for food among the lions; through natural selection, only the strong survive.

Lions have also not been spared the ravages of the Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus. This virus works in a manner similar to that of HIV in humans.

Once infected with FIV, a lion's immunity to other diseases is lowered, and it becomes susceptible to infections that result in death.

And just like HIV, the feline variant has no cure, and once the lion is infected, death is certain.

Although the Kenyan lion population has not been affected by this virus (KWS says no death has been linked to FIV), the lion population has in the past been devastated by other viral diseases.

Canine Distemper, a disease with a death rate of 100 per cent, almost cut lion numbers by half in the late 1970s and 1980s. Botswana has been the hardest hit by the FIV virus.

According to KWS records, there are 30,000 lions roaming Africa's wild, half of which inhabit the grasslands of Tanzania. In Kenya, only 2,000 are left.

Ironically, despite the drastic reduction in their numbers, lions are still not categorised as endangered species.

Currently they are classified as 'vulnerable,' just four categories from extinction. But this is as high up the list as KWS would want to go.

Future of the lions

"As far as we are concerned, they shouldn't go below 2,000. All conservation efforts are being directed at increasing their numbers," said Dr Musyoki.

Such efforts include identification of new ranges outside game parks and reserves that can be used to settle new lion populations.

In a span of six years, the lion population in Kenya has decreased by almost 25 per cent, from 2700 to the present number.

To reverse this trend, a lot has to be done in terms of civic education.

"Communities should be educated on how they can benefit from the lions. Whatever revenue is collected from tourism should trickle down to these communities who hold the future of the lions in their hands," said Mrs Kiarie.

If the communities do not see the benefit of caring for lions, they would prefer to hunt them down to prevent attacks on their domestic animals, she says.