It’s not easy being king. In fact, it’s a lot worse than most of us think. In the 1950s, the lion population was 450,000 strong. Today there may be as few as 20,000 lions left. And if the situation doesn’t change dramatically, we could be looking at extinction within 10 to 20 years.
But it may not come to this, according to conservationist Dereck Joubert, Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and maker of the 2011 film The Last Lions. (If you watch the YouTube trailer for it, National Geographic will donate 10 cents to a lion and big cat conservation in Botswana! So watch! And watch again!). Here, TakePart speaks with Joubert to find out the truth about lions today.
TakePart: The Earth has lost 90 to 95 percent of its lions in a very short timeframe. How does this happen?
Dereck Joubert: It happened because of people, and it continues to happen to lions for the same reason. We have 7 billion people and 20,000 lions. We have to be extremely careful about the power we exert on the planet and its occupants.
We are working on a study, and early results show that the deaths to lions right now is a mixed bag of causes, starting with trophy or safari hunting and cattle and lion conflicts, where herders retaliate once lions kill cattle. Trade in lion bones is becoming the next big thing. South Africa has released 1,000 lions as skeletons into the market, and that creates a market in itself. Habitat erosion and destruction due to farming, slash and burn, is another issue.
This would be devastating on so many levels. What can be done to turn around this precipitous decrease in lions? Is it too late?
It’s not too late. Voltaire said something along the lines of, “If I am to die by the top of a blade, it will be with a sword in my hand.” I feel that here for conservation. We have wild lions still wandering through Africa in the most unlikely places, and we have 80 percent of Africa uninhabited by people. There are ecotourism lodges and camps like the one we own, Great Plains. It pours everything back into conservation and controls 1 million acres of land. We need to grow this type of passive use to cover 40 million acres, but it is a start and it stimulates hope.
What about zoos or fenced refuges? Are they helpful?
No, zoos are not the answer. They are largely housing for representations of animals that look like the real thing, and live and smell and breathe like them, but are not. A fat lion lying in a zoo enclosure waiting for chopped up cow meat once a day is not the same as that animal with amber shoulder blades pumping mechanically through the tall grass downwind of the buffalo, stopping, looking, snapping a look at eight other sets of black tipped ears ahead, in a silent signal adapted by evolution for the hunt. It’s not the same as that animal that shoots out of the grass and grasps on to a buffalo in full flight, nearly a thousand pounds of muscle, and brings it to its knees with only its teeth and claws. One is a 3-D image. One is a real living, fighting, killing lion that influences the habitat it lives in, in Africa (and Asia.) There is no replacement for that.
Fenced refuges, in some cases, may help. There is a strong movement by some scientists to raise money for this one effort and fence all the big lion habitats. I am not quite on the fence on this one! I hate fences. I think that unless we do something, fences will be the only solution. But this is premature in my opinion. I am still saying, “Doctor, I can fix this, with good food and exercise, and sane thinking...we don’t need life support yet.” The problem, our critics might say, is that you never think you need life support until you do.
Are you optimistic that final, drastic measures can be avoided?
I think there is huge hope. I am looking into satellite technology that watches parks and has millions of subscribers monitor. A poacher insurgency can be detected and called in. We have technology (in development) that fits to lions that stops them from approaching cattle. We have no hunting in Botswana now, none in Zambia. Mozambique, I am told, is looking into it, and Zimbabwe was as well. Hunting is all but a relic activity. Huge hope in that. Via the Big Cats Initiative that Beverly and I founded, we have over 40 projects in 13 countries.
Is there one big answer here that could help across the board?
What we need is a fund, and I am proposing a fund for Africa, of about half a billion dollars that can tackle the poaching and trade with UN sanction and support. Unless we go big on this, we will fail. But in essence, the battle—and it is a battle—will be targeted and strategic, a war that will be fought over lions, rhinos, and elephants. If we can save those, we can save it all. If we can’t, it will all go.