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Why should we act now to save the African lion?

David Youldon


One of the greatest threats to global biodiversity is the degradation of ecosystems. The lion, Panthera leo, occurs in all African habitats and is therefore an important element of those eco-systems; its presence is an indicator of an areas wild and natural integrity.

Historically, lions were widely distributed in Africa from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, to the Cape of South Africa, from the coastal regions of the Gambia and to the vast savannahs of Tanzania, but their range has been dramatically reduced as more and more land is given over to agriculture and livestock to support an ever-growing population.

“There is probably no other species whose distribution range has shrunk over historical times to the extent shown by the lion” (Smithers, 1983)

Over 200,000 lions roamed the African continent as recently as 1975 but in 2002 two surveys provided evidence of a dramatic decline estimating that only 23 to 39,000 remain, with the lowest estimate being just 16,500. This represents an 80 to 90% population decline in less than 30 years. Many believe the number is even lower than this, and it is widely accepted that the population has continued to decline in the subsequent years.

Lions (Panthera Leo) have been listed in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II and are regarded as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List [Version 3.1 2001]. Most animals on the ‘vulnerable’ list are likely to end up on the ‘endangered’ one.

Founded by Andrew & Wendy Conolly at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, ALERT believes that we should not wait until the African lion is in crisis before taking steps to ensure the future of the species.

“…we can begin programs of lion reintroduction in a wide variety of depopulated areas. Such programs will not only be immediately positive, but will also place lions squarely in the category of animals like rhinos whose plight seems to be better appreciated by the international conservation community. This is why I am appreciative and excited to be involved by the initiatives taken by Andrew and Wendy Conolly. Through years of self-funded and determined effort, they have developed a program of re-introduction that has a very good chance of success. Predators of any description are notoriously difficult to reintroduce, but now we have at least a workable plan. ….the future of African lions is in African hands. Let us salute those who have been steadfast to ensure this future, and recognize that any action is better than the currently looming extinction of an African icon if we do nothing.” Dr. Pieter Kat – ALERT consultant ecologist

As one of Africa’s “Big 5”, the lion is a flagship species for tourism; a huge draw card for visitors from around the globe, helping to fuel the economies of Africa’s developing nations. In turn, tourism makes significant contributions to other national economic goals such as foreign exchange earning and employment creation both within the tourism sector as well as in secondary and support industries.

The presence of lion is of particular interest to tourists when making a decision about where to go on safari. It has been estimated that the viewing value per lion in the Amboseli National Park is in excess of US$ 0.5 million (Thresher 1981).

The lion is also a powerful symbol, not just for many of Africa’s indigenous cultures, but its influence extends throughout the world. Its name or image is used in coats of arms, heroic names of former kings, frescos, names of football teams, commercial products, proverbs and sayings.

The disappearance of the African lion would represent a great loss to the traditional culture of Africa.

ALERT has received interest from governments and private reserves across the continent from Niger & Benin, Malawi & Zambia to Zimbabwe and Mozambique to introduce the ALERT program. The need for such a program is becoming increasingly acknowledged in terms of boosting lion numbers as well as in promoting sustainable conservation practices through the ALERT conservation and community initiatives.


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