King No More: The Tragic Plight of Lions in Africa

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"First we have to know what needs to be protected," says Pimm. To obtain more precise figures on the population of African lions, he and his team compiled the most comprehensive collection of data on African lion populations to date. Both the local population and hunting organizations assisted in the effort. The results were published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Whereas older satellite images depicted a largely intact savannah, higher-resolution imaging technology enabled the scientists to pinpoint small fields and settlements scattered throughout the environment. "Lions can't show up there," says co-author Jason Riggio.

The scientists identified 67 individual savannah zones in which human populations are small enough to allow for the survival of the big cats. Only 10 of them, six in South Africa and four in East Africa, proved to be "bastions" that still offer lions a good chance of survival. Most of these habitats are in protected areas like the Kruger and Serengeti National Parks.

The decline of the lion began long ago. In fact, German zoologist Alfred Brehm began observing it more than a century ago. "The days when 600 lions could be brought together to fight in an arena were thousands of years ago," he concluded. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, up to 100 lions died in a single event. Pompey the Great exhibited 600 lions, while up to 400 were sent to the arena under Caesar. "But it wasn't until the invention of guns" that the animal, a dangerous threat to livestock herds, was "pushed back and eventually exterminated" everywhere, Brehm writes in his book "Brehm's Life of Animals." Hunters, like the legendary Jules Gérard, had rid North Africa of the supposed plague of Berber lions, and Morocco's last lion was shot to death in 1920.

Trophy Hunting South of the Sahara, man also proved to be a relentless foe of the tawny-coated predator. To this day, nomadic tribes like the Massai retaliate against the hated killers of their livestock by shooting the animals or setting out poisoned bait.

But the hunt engaged in by former colonial rulers and their successors also has other dimensions. Over a period of three years, his great-grandfather Harold "shot over 400 lions as well as numerous leopard," boasts Simon Leach, who operates Eagle Safaris in Harrismith, South Africa. On his website, Leach bills himself as a "hunter and conservationist," and notes: "Eagle Safaris continues this proud tradition and draws on the skills and expertise gained over the years." Inexperienced hunters, including those who require multiple shots to kill an animal, are just as welcome as professionals, and a hunting license is not necessary.

International conservation groups are sharply critical of trophy hunting, which they say is partly to blame for the acute plight of the lion. The business, which is booming in South Africa and Tanzania, in particular, is hastening the decline of the big cat, they warn in a petition to the United States Department of the Interior. Commenting on the extensive studies, Jeffrey Flocken of the International Fund of Animal Welfare (IFAW) says: "Many people will be shocked to know how quickly the numbers have fallen."

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