The wild Lions of Africa
Updated: May 18
By Staci-lee Sherwood
When you think of Africa and all its beauty one of the most iconic animals that comes to mind are the lions. They may be the king of the jungle but wild royalty doesn’t insulate them from canned hunts and poachers. These are the lions of Africa. Fossils show that the early Felidae originated some time at or just after the end of the Eocene or about 33 million years ago. Lions have been around a long time but their future is in real jeopardy. While other species like the elephant, tiger and rhino grab headlines about their near extinction, the tragic loss of lions from Earth flies under the radar. We could lose them forever if we don’t pay attention and act now.
Lions that captivated us
For those who grew up in the 1960s we were enthralled with the journey of Elsa as a cub to freedom and motherhood. What a wonderful story with a happy ending when a year after her release back into the wild Elsa is seen with a mate and wild cubs of her own. Thanks to Game Warden George Adamson and his wife Joy who rescued her and took the surreal journey of rewilding a lion cub successfully. If you haven’t seen ‘Born Free’ and ‘Living Free’ I highly recommend watching both.
Joy with Elsa
George with Elsa
Then we have the story of Christian who was a 3 month old lion cub living in a cage at the London department store Harrod’s which sold exotic animals. It was 1969 when John Rendall and Anthony Bourke made the choice to buy the cub and give him a better life. Soon after it became apparent as the cub grew he would be too big to live in a small apartment. Rendall and Bourke traveled to Kenya with Christian where George Adamson trained Christian how to be a wild lion. In 1971 Rendall and Bourke returned to Kenya hoping to reunite with their rescued cub.
The now famous meeting and hug from all grown up Christian took place as his story warmed hearts all over the globe. 1971 Kenya
In 2002 another odd sighting caught the attention of wildlife biologist who study lions. This was a lioness that appeared to have ‘adopted’ a newborn oryx (type of antelope) calf and mother the calf. The photos spread like wildfire around the internet and captivated the world. At first is seemed heartwarming as if this symbolized a message of peace and love between normally warring species. Lions usually eat oryx so adopting and attempting to care for one was clearly out of the ordinary.
The now famous lioness was named Kamunyak which means "Blessed One". She lived in the Samburu National Reserve, in Northern Kenya. After the first sighting of her odd behavior she was spotted having adopted another 5 more calves though the actual number is not known. While the photos of the calves curled up with the protective lioness the reality is quite tragic. In stark contrast to what we humans saw as sweet was really two confused animals slowly starving. While Kamunyak was attempting to mother a calf from a species she normally eats she did not hunt. Because the calves were not able to nurse from the lioness they too were starving. At times Kamunyak was seen fighting off predators and lion prides which attempted to eat her charges. Though scores of scientists, photographers and tourists kept tarck of her she was last seen in 2004 and her fate unknown.
Human caused threats
Sadly most lion stories don’t end like Elsa’s or Christian’s, they end more like that of Cecil. In 2015 Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer paid $50,000 for the privilege of the shot heard around the world. Palmer paid the big bucks to shoot a lion in Zimbabwe on a trophy hunt. Despite global disgust no criminal charges were filed and Palmer went on to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill endangered rams, rhinos and a slew of other wildlife.
Canned hunts and captive breeding await many lions today. South Africa may proclaim that canned hunts are illegal but shooting captive bred lions are legal. What’s the difference? Just the language but not the intent or outcome. Captive bred lions are often starved, drugged and abused with little to no will to live or wild survival skills. This is done exclusively for trophy hunters to have an easy kill they then hang on their wall. I personally can’t think of anything more morbid.
According to the nonprofit CannedLion.org “Chinese shamans regard the bones of wild lions and tigers as being more potent than those of captive-bred animals. The new wealth in the East and the growth of the lion bone trade go hand in hand; this will lead to a surge in the poaching of wild lions, thereby pushing them closer to regional extinction in Africa.” Much of China’s new wealth comes from American companies moving their factories and headquarters over there. This is done to avoid what many in industry claim are too restrictive environmental and worker safety regulations, costly cleanups from pollution and taxes. In truth most large companies pay less in taxes than some middleclass families and prefer the lax regulations that allows them to contaminate water and air with impunity.
When the consumer makes a purchase their money often goes to countries like China where the newly rich can’t get enough of delicacies like tiger bone wine and other wild feline products. How you spend your money can drive the extinction of a species or destruction of wild lands as an unintended consequence. This happens quite often though the paper trail is kept out of public view. Think twice before buying anything in this global market, you might be funding cruelty and not know it.
Exploding human population, loss of habitat and loss of food are big drivers toward extinction. As our population increases we push all other species out of the natural habitat with nowhere else for them to go. This is a global problem with little to no action by any country to solve this. Every year we come closer to total annihilation of all wildlife yet seem oblivious to this year. Lions are clearly headed toward this fate.
The bleak future
According to an article published in Nature magazine in 2011 states that accurate data about the historical population of wild lions in Africa varies widely. Current studies show about 6 or 7 viable populations of 1,000 or more lions left in key wildlife reserves in Africa. Estimates of total lions living free range from 20 – 25 thousand . These figures probably surprise many who don’t think of the lion on the path toward extinction.
In Kenya, the country where Elsa was born and raised, reports a loss of 100 lions annually. This may not seem like a lot but when a population is rapidly decreasing every animal counts. This also does not include illegal kills, accidental kills or undiscovered natural deaths, so we should assume the death rate to be higher.
Another shocking and sad possibility comes from Dr. Laurence Frank, conservation biologist at University of California Berkeley, who predicts that wild lions in Kenya could be extinct within two decades. Between loss of habitat and food, hunting and poaching and the exploding human population this prediction could come true. Due to these issues the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed the species as vulnerable but a mere listing wont’ save them without immediate intelligent action.
If we want to save our wild lions we need to get serious and act now. We need to ban all forms of hunting, set aside enough wild land with a sustainable food supply to maintain a healthy population for the long run. The clock is ticking.
The tragic reality of exploding human population which cause the decline of all other species
If you would like to learn about canned hunts and help end them click here for more information
If you would like to help save lions and other big cats click here https://www.bornfreeusa.org/
Also published on The Good men Project on May 15, 2023