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Walter Palmer with another one of his kills. Image: Facebook

Earlier this month, an American dentist, big-game hunter and this week's most-hated man, Walter Palmer, killed the star attraction of Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park: a large, 12-year-old lion known to locals as Cecil. When the grisly details of Palmer's hunt began to emerge this week, they sparked a storm of outrage unlike anything we've seen directed at a hunter before (and the past few months have brought us plenty). 

But if there's any good at all that can come from this tragic story, it's that Cecil's death could help focus the world's attention on the increasingly dire plight of lions, and other large predators, all across Africa. Aside from wealthy hunters willing to pay thousands for the pleasure of bagging their heads, lions in the wild are facing a barrage of threats so daunting that they could soon be wiped out of existence. 

Habitat loss 

Lions are simply running out of room to roam. As human populations continue to grow, Africa's savannahs are being carved and swallowed up at an alarming rate. According to a 2013 study, we've lost 75% of a vast savannah ecosystem that once stretched over an area larger than the United States – a decline almost as severe as the world's rainforest losses, the researchers warned. Estimates say lions have now vanished from about 80 percent of their African range (this map charts where they still survive today), and what remains of suitable lion habitat could be gone in just a few decades unless we take action.

But finding an effective way of preserving lion habitat is a conservation challenge of epic proportions. Some experts say focusing on the continent's few remaining "lion strongholds" – including the Okavango-Hwange in Botswana and Zimbabwe that Cecil called home – is the solution, since they contain the largest and genetically healthiest lion populations. Protected areas, experts say, should be surrounded by "buffer zones" to keep humans and lions at a safe distance from each other. Some have even argued in favour of fencing in certain reserves, a strategy that's controversial but has helped boost populations in some areas. 

Human-wildlife conflict 

Getting any conservation plan off the ground hinges on the support of local communities. As Africa's wild spaces find themselves squeezed ever tighter, areas where people and the wilderness meet become hotspots for conflict, and conservation becomes a precarious juggling act that must balance the need to protect wildlife with the safety and livelihoods of the people who live alongside it. 

In the case of lions, that balancing act is particularly tricky because large predators make for dangerous neighbours: they attack villagers and prey on precious livestock. The results of such conflicts can be dire for lions – in fact, they're responsible for significantly more lion deaths than trophy hunts are (Kenya alone loses at least 100 wild lions in this way each year).

The golden ideal here is getting local communities on board with conservation initiatives and giving them a financial stake in their success – in this way, the surrounding wildlife benefits from reduced poaching, fewer flareups of human-animal conflict and less encroachment on leftover habitat. One initiative that has come close to that ideal (albeit on a small scale) is playing out on the communal lands that border Kenya's Amboseli National Park. There, young Maasai warriors have been recruited to work as "Lion Guardians" and now spend their days tracking the big cats through the bush in order to prevent attacks on livestock. The project has successfully reduced lion killings in the area. Various groups are working on achieving similar wins elsewhere.


From Distemper and TB to Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), disease is another threat Africa's lions face today.

In the 1990s, 30 percent of the lions living in Serengeti National Park died from an outbreak of distemper, spread to them from domestic dogs in nearby human settlements. A vaccination drive worked to curb infection among the dogs, but other carnivores in the region continue to carry the virus, and more research is needed so we can prevent future outbreaks. 

TB, on the other hand, found its way into African lion populations from infected prey, most likely buffalo. It's been detected in cats in the Serengeti and northern Tanzania, but it's in South Africa's iconic Kruger National Park where it poses the biggest threat, with over 80% of lions infected in some parts of the park. Even if it doesn't kill, its symptoms – including respiratory problems, emaciation, lameness and blindness – weaken lions and affect pride dynamics. 

The cats are also battling FIV, an AIDS-like disease that attacks their immune systems and causes symptoms like wasting, kidney disease and chronic inflammation. South African researchers are working to figure out exactly how FIV gets around and just how widespread it is among local lion populations. 

Trophy hunts

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Texas cheerleader Kendall Jones came under fire for her African hunts last year. Image: Facebook

Although trophy hunting accounts for a yearly loss of only about 2.4% of Africa’s lion population, conservationists argue that this is unsustainable given all of the other threats the cats face. 

Recent stats reveal that as many as 18,500 foreign hunters visit Africa every year, killing some 105,000 big-game animals (600 of them lions) in an industry worth at least around $200 million each year. Hunting proponents argue that regulated, sustainable hunting can help bolster animal populations through dedicated breeding programmes, as well as rake in some vital cash for local communities that may otherwise turn to poaching. But not everyone is convinced. Critics argue that hunt quotas are often overblown, mismanagement and corruption result in very little (if any) money trickling down to local communities, and canned hunting operations do not help boost wild populations.

Cecil’s death has reignited calls from conservationists to have African lions listed under the US Endangered Species Act – a legal approach that has been on the cards since last year when the African Lion Coalition, a grouping of conservation organisations, first proposed the listing. Although the new ruling wouldn’t place a ban on hunting, it would effectively make it impossible for US hunters to take their prized lion trophies home with them, a restriction that conservationists hope would deter hunters from paying to shoot the cats.

Born Free USA is urging citizens to write to the Fish and Wildlife Service to push for a final decision on the pending proposal, but corporate companies may also have a role to play. Some airlines have banned the transportation of hunting trophies in their cargo holds. According to the African Wildlife Foundation conservation group, “the government could take matters into their own hands, but companies have a role to play. If they’re ethically opposed to transporting trophies, they can make a corporate stance against it.”  

What you can do right now:

Donate just $5 to National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. Follow #5forBigCats (Even Arnie's getting involved.)

Buy a Lion Guardian a mobile phone so he can call in reports for just $25. Donate here.  

Sponsor a collar and tracking equipment for a big cat.