Big Cats on the Brink: African Lions


Big Cats on the Brink: African Lions

The iconic lion is endangered, too. These majestic mammals have captured the human imagination like no other animal. The ancient Egyptians worshiped them, and their image is commonly used to represent divine powers, royalty, and human courage. But these noble creatures now teeter on the brink of extinction.Researchers estimate that only about 20,000 lions remain in Africa.[i] Experts estimate that lions face extinction within the next twenty to thirty years.[ii]

The situation is even bleaker for the West African lions. Their numbers are dangerously low, with only about 250 adults occupying less than one percent of their historic range.[iii] Scientists warn that without major conservation efforts, these lions could disappear from West Africa within the next five years.[iv]


Causes of Population Decline

  1. Habitat Encroachment
    As the human population rises, more and more space is claimed for agriculture. Kelsay Davenport reports, “that they [lions] only occupy roughly 20 percent of their historic range, meaning that they are extinct in 26 African countries.”[v] Habitat erosion leaves lions little room for hunting and denning.         
  1. Human-Lion Conflict and Loss of Prey
    Their shrinking habitat brings lions into closer proximity with people, leading to inevitable human-animal conflicts and limits lions’ access to prey. They sometimes resort to killing livestock, which tragically leads to retaliatory killings.
  1. Trophy Hunting
    Many people do not know that trophy hunting exists, and it is controversial. It refers to the practice of killing big-game wildlife, and its name stems from the practice of keeping some of the animal parts (heads or skins, for example) as souvenirs.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulates trophy hunting and maintains that it has a legitimate role to play on conservation. U.S. hunters are required to purchase permits from host countries to kill a specific species as well a U.S. permit to import the “trophies” or animal parts back into the United States.

In 2015, U.S.F.W.S. added two subspecies of the African lion (P. l. leo and P. I. melanochaita) to the Endangered Species Act. U.S. hunters are not permitted to bring their parts into the United States.[vi]

“Canned” hunting is even more controversial. In most cases, these animals are captive-bred, and the cubs are often raised in petting zoos. As a result, many are tame. When they are adults, they are taken from the zoo and often placed in a fenced-in area to be killed by a hunter, who then imports their parts – or trophies – back to their homeland. The name, “canned hunting,” stems from the fact that the hunter is guaranteed a kill; subsequently, the hunt is “canned.”

Hunters come from all parts of the world, but the United States appears to be the largest contributor, “killing over 60% of all African lions killed for sport in Africa.”[vii]

Many hunters defend trophy hunting by claiming it is part of conservation and does not threaten the survival of the species. However, Jeff Flocken of the International Fund for Animal Welfare does not agree. He points to studies, which have “shown in areas where there has been the most intense sport hunting, there have been the steepest declines of lions in those populations.   Lions have a unique social pattern and structure, where if you were to kill the largest dominant male, it disrupts the whole pride and can result in deaths of other males when a new male comes in to take over.”[viii]

Effects of Lion Extinction

Apex Predator

Top predators have a profound affect on ecosystems. “A single predator can control factors such as the abundance, distribution, species diversity, and even the body shape of its prey — and, through a trickle-down effect — of all of the other species in the system.”[ix]

For example, the loss of lions in Africa led to a massive increase in the baboon population. Baboons carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans; an increase in their numbers led to an increase in the infection rates for humans.[x]

Lions cull herbivore populations, which helps maintain the balance between herbivores and their food sources. By keeping the herbivore population in check, lions also ensure that plants have the opportunity to flourish.[xi]

The extinction of lions will have detrimental effects on the environment and other species.

Economic Impact

Lions are an iconic and charismatic species. Like elephants, their loss will negatively affect tourism and hence, local economies. There’s no time to lose if we want to ensure that the king of the jungle remains on this throne.



[i].“Declining Lions,” National Geographic. Accessed March 10, 2017. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lions have declined by 43% in two decades. (Please add footnote: “Endangered Species Act Listing Protects Lions in Africa and India, Director’s Order Strengthens Wildlife Import Restrictions for Violators of Wildlife Laws,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. December 21, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017.

[ii]. Estimates vary. Maria Goodavage, “King of Extinction? Lions Could be Gone in 10 to 20 Years,” takepart, April 17, 2013. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[iii]. Brian Clark Howard, “Lions Approach Extinction in West Africa,” National Geographic News, January 8, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[iv]. Ibid.

[v]. Kelsey Davenport, “Lions: The New Endangered Species,” Huffington Post Blog, February 18, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[vi]. See,

[vii]. Transcript, “Protecting the African Lion from Trophy Hunters,” PBS NewsHour, October 27, 2014. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[viii]. Ibid.

[ix]. “Why Save the Desert Lions?” PBS Nature, December 9, 2010. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[x]. Elizabeth Weise, “Loss of Predators in the Food Chain can alter the Ecosystem,” USA Today, July 14, 2011. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[xi]. Caroline Fraser, “The Crucial Role of Predators: A New Perspective on Ecology,” Yale Ecology 360, September 15, 2011.  Accessed February 18, 2015.