Lions are not the easiest of wild animals to count, at least not at the scale necessary to make important management decisions. And it’s probably for this reason that so few data collation exercises have been undertaken on the species over the past 60 or so years. According to the IUCN (www.iucnredlist.org), the first effort in the 1950s guesstimated that there were possibly more than 400 000 lions in Africa. By the early ’90s, however, the omens for the continent’s iconic cat were not good – the estimated total for the species had dropped to below 100 000. Two further attempts at a census in the early 2000s concurred with the lower number and, more ominously, indicated that a fair percentage of Africa’s lion population was still found outside protected areas where threats to the animals were highest.

Earlier this year, the report ‘Conserving large carnivores: Dollars and fences’ was released. The most comprehensive lion survey ever undertaken and involving more than 40 specialist scientists, it confirmed that the species is indeed facing a perilous future.

The decade-long study covered 42 sites across 11 African countries and was led by Professor Craig Packer from the University of Minnesota, US, with Drs Luke Hunter, Guy Balme, Andy Loveridge and Paul Funston among the co-authors.

The report warns that close to 50 per cent of the continent’s unfenced lion populations face extinction within the next 20 to 40 years, a conclusion supported by a survey released in 2012, ‘The size of savannah Africa: A lion’s view’. Its authors, J. Riggio et al., estimated the lion population to stand at 32 000 animals and be distributed in no more than 25 per cent of its original range.

The Packer et al. study lists a number of primary threats to lions, all of which are human-related. To understand the severity of the conflict equation, it’s worth taking a look at the population dynamics of the species on the other side: in 1950 the number of humans in Africa stood at 221 million, a total that by 2000 had grown to almost 800 million. The continent’s human population is currently 1.1 billion and is forecast to reach 1.4 billion by 2025 and 1.99 billion by 2050.

The present population and conflict dynamics don’t bode well for lions, and because of this the authors have reintroduced the notion of fencing as the best way to protect the species (see also ‘Good fences, good neighbours?’ in Africa Geographic May 2013, page 8). ‘These findings highlight the severity of the lion conservation crisis today and the limited choices we have to ensure a future for the species,’ says Luke Hunter, president of Panthera (www.panthera.org), the organisation that specialises in wild cat conservation. ‘No-one wants to resort to putting any more fences around Africa’s marvellous wild areas, but without massive and immediate increases in the commitment to lion conservation, we may have little choice.’ The cost analysis also supports a fencing strategy. Lion populations in parks and reserves secured by fences are larger and more dense, and the funds required to conserve them are substantially smaller than for unfenced areas.

But, say the authors, fencing can only be an option in ‘ecosystems with well-defined limits’.

In open migratory ecosystems that also support communities leading a traditional way of life, alternative ways of keeping humans and lions apart would have to be found. One possibility is ‘intensely managed buffer zones’, the transitional landscapes in which lions often face a high level of persecution and hunting pressure, including trophy hunting.

Nevertheless, such zones carry sizable numbers of lions, as well as vital gene pools.

Protecting the animals that survive in them is going to be a significant challenge, and it will need coordinated efforts and substantial time and resources. ‘We have shown that it is possible to keep both humans and lions in African landscapes by reducing lion–human conflict, but it requires extensive resources,’ confirms Guy Balme, the director of Panthera’s Lion Program in Africa. ‘As the numbers of people and their livestock continue to grow in Africa, it is essential to scale up these programmes to avoid losing many lion populations.’

Significantly, none of the programmes to conserve wild lions include the controversial and misdirected ‘walking with lions’ operations.

Lacking both a scientific basis and support from researchers, such initiatives divert awareness and much-needed funds from legitimate programmes. ‘Although paying tourists may enjoy cuddling lion cubs, this approach does nothing to address the real issues that are driving the species’ decline and diverts valuable human and financial resources that should be devoted to ecosystem-wide protection where wild lions still persist,’ wrote Hunter et al in a separate paper earlier this year.

Anyone who wants to support lion conservation should do so through recognised scientific and conservation bodies.