By Kelsey Davenport
For as long as I can remember, lions have always been my favorite animal. I'm not sure whether it was due to my love for Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia or because my horoscope sign is Leo. Maybe it was because I wanted to be in Gryffindor even though I'm 100% pure Hufflepuff. Either way, lions have consistently held my interest, leading me to work at a zoo and for a lion conservation non-profit. At the zoo, the lion exhibit is considered a highlight for children and parents alike -- so it is always a little disappointing for them when they see first-hand that lions spend 20 hours a day sleeping.
When most people think of lions, they picture them prowling the Sub-Saharan plains for food, or lazing about in big grassy areas. This is because the image of an African lion -- the lion one sees on a safari or in films like The Lion King -- is firmly ingrained in the American psyche. Many people believe that lions can only be found in Africa, and while this is now largely true it was not always the case. Lions once roamed over a much larger area, with a range spanning two continents and a variety of Afro-Asian countries. India, in particular, had an impressive lion population that few in America are aware of.
For the most part, the Asiatic lion found in India resembles the African lion in physical appearance. The key exceptions are its mane, which is less full and healthy looking, and a distinguishing longitudinal fold of skin that runs across its belly. Contrary to the popular image of lions living in plains, these Asiatic lions make their habitat in deciduous forest, surrounded by copious amounts of flora and fauna.
There is another stark difference between the two subspecies: Asiatic lions are far more endangered than their African counterparts. There are only around 411 of them left, according to a survey conducted in 2010.
This week, National Geographic published an article on the conservation effort to save Asia's last lions. The effort is called The Lion Safari Project and involves creating more habitat (approximately 350 hectares worth of habitat) for Asia's dwindling lion population. The goal is to generate public interest and revenue for the endangered species by creating an adventurous attraction similar to the iconic African Safari. The catch of the project is that the lions will be kept within enclosed perimeters and will even be transferred to animal houses at night. Even so, the project will be a unique opportunity for tourists and visitors to view Asiatic lions up close in the wild while learning and sponsoring wildlife conservation.
Asiatic lions are firmly placed in the "endangered" category, but many believe African lions should be as well. Looking at the numbers, African lions seem safe -- there are between 32,000 and 35,000 in existence. Upon examining the situation further, however, it is alarming to discover that their population has been cut in half in the past twenty-two years, and that they only occupy roughly 20 percent of their historic range, meaning that they are extinct in 26 African countries. Worst of all, many current lion populations are too small and isolated to be sustainable. Habitat loss is the primary cause of the decreasing number of lions, but other problems exist as well. Of these problems, trophy hunting is the most deplorable. Trophy hunting, or the hunting of exotic animals for personal glory, still exists in most African countries. The United States is the world's leading importer of lion parts for trophy hunting and commercial purposes.
How is this practice still continuing when lions are at a risk of extinction within the foreseeable future? And what can be done to halt the decline of lion populations all over Africa? In November of last year, animal behaviorist Kevin Richardson made a fifteen minute GoPro video titled "Lions - the New Endangered Species?" The video went viral, gaining almost six million views within the first three months of its upload date. In the video, Richardson focused on the playfulness of the lions he works with -- lions are the only social big cats -- and educated the viewer on the problems facing Africa's lion population. In the comments section, many Youtube users expressed concern and their prior ignorance to the harsh fact that lions are slowly disappearing.
It seems the first and most logical goal that needs to be accomplished by lion conservationists is to have lions officially listed as endangered species. Currently, they are only listed as "Vulnerable" on the IUCN's (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species. By listing lions as an endangered species, we can guarantee them protection under the Endangered Species Act -- protection that they are currently denied. This would mean importation and trade of lion parts and trophies would become illegal. It would also become considerably more difficult for trophy hunting to occur. Hunters would have to pay much higher prices to shoot their game, and the money spent could actually go towards conservation efforts. Of course, this is an ethically questionable practice, but it would be preferable to the existing treatment of trophy hunters towards lions.
In the 1850s, there were thousands of Asiatic lions residing in India. Now, there are only 400. The parallels between the two lion populations are significant -- shouldn't we curb the diminishing numbers of African lions now, before they go the way of their relatives in India?
Surely, it is better to take preventative measures while we still can. By answering the question Kevin Richardson raised in the title of his GoPro video, I hope to promote awareness of a relatively recent cause: Yes, lions ARE the new endangered species, but there is plenty that we can do to change this.