A FOUNDATION with close links to an Eastern Cape reserve has declared 2016 the year of the lion.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the release of the film Born Free, the foundation named after it would launch initiatives to focus on the decline of the lion population, it was announced yesterday.

These will include a census, publicity campaigns and special screenings.

“Elsa the lioness captured the hearts and minds of a worldwide audience in the 1966 classic film Born Free – but, today, the international wildlife charity that bears its name sounds the alarm over the future of lions,” the foundation said yesterday.

The film starred Virginia McKenna – a frequent visitor to Shamwari in the Eastern Cape – and her late husband, Bill Travers.

They portrayed conservationists George and Joy Adamson and the rehabilitation of the lion Elsa.

Born Free Foundation chief executive Adam Roberts said it was believed that lion numbers had plummeted to fewer than 20 000 across Africa.

Roberts said the slaying of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe had made headlines worldwide last year, and the recent documentary Blood Lions revealed the horrors of professional and canned hunting.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, to be held in Johannesburg in September, would also concentrate on the plight of lions.

Shamwari, in partnership with McKenna, has gained international recognition for its Born Free Foundation Animal Rescue and Education Centre.