Like many homes across Australia at the moment, our household has been caught up in the frenzy of Lion King Ooshie collectibles as part of the promotion by Woolworths to coerce us all to buy more groceries from them. My kids are nuts about them, as are most of the kids at school, it seems. Never mind they are plastic rubbish that will end up in the ocean as turtle food in the not too distant future. To the kids they are pure gold! I took our youngest, Shep, to see the new Lion King movie a week ago and it really did live up to expectations - both his and mine. The movie is in the process of making billions of dollars through The Lion King franchise, but what is Disney doing to help conserve lions in the wild?
While we go crazy over the latest Lion King movie, over in Africa, the last real refuge for lions, space is running out. It's important we share this message because this keystone predator is too precious to lose on the African savannah. Quite selfishly, what would an African safari be without them?
There's nothing like the first time you hear a lion roar in the wild at night in Africa to remind you that you are in Africa and in a place where we humans are just as vulnerable to the theory of survival of the fittest as any other animal out there. Seeing lions in the wild is a spine-tingling, goosebumps moment and highlight of any safari. I'm just about to go over to the Serengeti, which is one of the last national parks in Africa with a lion population that experts consider to be 'viable', that is, being at least 1000 in population size.
Many people don't realise the extent to which lions are threatened in the wild today. Lion populations have declined by 43% in the last two decades to just 20,000 today. According to the Lion Recovery Fund, this means there are actually fewer lions than rhinos today on mainland Africa! Just over a century ago there were 200,000 lions in Africa. Where have they all gone? How did this happen?
I caught up with my mate, Dr Peter Lindsey, Director of the Lion Recovery Fund, to find out more.
First of all I should say that Peter and I have known each other for a long time, actually since we were still teenagers aspiring to be wildlife conservationists. Back in the day when I was frolicking at Humani Ranch in Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe, volunteering in their safari operation and for various research projects, Peter was related to the owners of the neighbours of Humani and so we often ran into each other. Later, when I was doing my PhD on impalas and he was doing his on African wild dogs, we caught up as fledgling zoologists at a conservation conference in South Africa. Peter later worked at New York based predator charity "Panthera" as Policy Co-ordinator of their Lion Programme and is now Director of the Wildlife Conservation Network's Lion Recovery Fund.
Peter, first of all, as a predator researcher, go on, get it out of your system. You have to make some joke about impalas being only useful as fast food.
I actually quite like impalas...
Lion populations are in pretty terrible shape. What are the main threats? Tell us about the work of the Lion Recovery Fund and how you're addressing these.
Lion numbers have declined by half since the last Lion King movie. They’re a perfect proxy for ecosystem health. There are essentially three categories of threat. The first is habitat-related, which includes agriculture, mining, logging. The second is things that reduce lion prey populations (like the bushmeat trade) and competition with livestock for grazing. The third are issues that reduce mortality of lions like retaliatory killing, human-lion conflict, targeting of lion body parts for traditional medicine and rites of passage lion killings that you see in some cultures in Africa. But the major threat is human population growth into lion habitats. The primary immediate threats are bush meat trade and conflict with people.
The Lion Recovery Fund was set up in 2017, co-founded by the Wildlife Conservation Network and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. We raise funding for lion conservation globally and we grant 100% of it according to a science-based strategy. We use lions as a flagship, so using lions to conserve savannah systems in general. We support a range of projects from protected area management, co-existence between lions and people, illegal wildlife trade and supporting conservation planning. (Check out their projects here)
Disney's got behind you guys with US$2 million which is funded partially from the profits of The Lion King movie (which I loved). According to Disney's Protect the Pride campaign website, it plans to help the Lion Recovery Fund double lion numbers by 2050. How are these funds going to help boost lion populations?
It enables us to issue more grants. So far, in under two years, there's 53 project grants given out from the Lion Recovery Fund, $5.5million worth across 17 different countries and 35 conservation organisations. Disney's support has been critical, but we really need to raise funding from many different sources.
What can everyday people do to help support lion conservation? Does going on safari make a difference? (Let's be honest to anyone who thinks going shopping at Woolies is going to help lions by acquiring Lion King Ooshies - it's a big fat no.)
Make a donation to the Lion Recovery Fund! It always helps to visit African wildlife areas too, going on a safari, particularly if guests visit the less visted parts of Africa. Last week I was in Kafue National Park in Zambia and that’s a fantastic place to visit. It's really beautiful but it doesn’t get the attention.
The Lionscape Coalition is a partnership between the Lion Recovery Fund and several top tourism companies that operate in Africa. These companies provide us with an annual financial contribution and we invest half in the areas where they operate and half elsewhere. You can visit safe and secure countries that are good for tourism, and your tourism dollars can help lion conservation in those areas, but this provides a mechanism to benefit lions in areas outside tourism areas. So far we have Wilderness Safaris, Singita, And Beyond, Ultimate Safaris, and Dazzle Africa as partners in the Lionscape Coalition. Several others have indicated they will join soon.
What do you love most about lions?
What I find amazing is the fact that a creature like the lion still exists in the modern world, such a huge powerful, dangerous, beautiful animal. Every time I go to the bush and see them in close proximity and hear them it’s a real privitlge and it's amazing that they still live and run wild.
There is hope for Africa's lions, given the passion for them and the knowledge about what needs to be done to conserve them, but we all must come together to mobilize action and that means supporting the local communities who live side by side with them. As Africa's human population continues to grow, this has never been more important.
On a different note, Australian-based organisation For The Love of Wildlife is calling on Disney to donate more to the conservation of lions, pointing out that what they're donating is a very small fraction of the profits from The Lion King franchise. Read more about their call to action and read their letter to Disney here. Wouldn't it be great if Woolworths also contributed to the conservation of wild lions through their profits, especially given how much business the movie would be generating for them during the Ooshie promotion?
In a week's time I'm going to be posting on social media from Tanzania so if you don't already follow me on facebook here's the links.
To understand more about the issues facing lions in the wild download Beyond Cecil: Africa's Lions in Crisis, a report by Panthera, WildAid and WildCRU.
Contact us to book a safari to give yourself the best chance to see lions in the wild based on twenty year's of experience exploring Africa's wild places. We have one room left on Tammie's Serengeti Safari in May next year & one room left on Tammie's Botswana safari in June 2020, or let us plan a safari for you to do independently with your family or friends.