Threat To Lions: 'King of the Beasts may not rule beyond this century'

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The lion, once ubiquitous across the plains of Africa, faces extinction unless urgent action is taken to halt its conflict with humans, conservationists have warned.

Scientists attending a conference which opened in Johannesburg yesterday warned that the "king of beasts" would "not rule beyond this century" unless urgent steps were taken to protect its remaining habitat.

Kristina Nowell, a member of the cat specialist group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said lions had lost about 80 to 90 per cent of their historic habitat range in the past century, and the future was looking bleak.

Over the past 20 years, the lion population has fallen dramatically to between 23,000 and 39,000. Of that total, only between 2,000 and 4,000 are in west and central Africa; the rest are in the east and south of the continent.

Urs Breitenmoser, chairman of the cat specialist group, said it was not possible to give estimates of the original lion populations because no scientific surveys were done then. But African conservationists have previously estimated that lion populations of hundreds of thousands roamed the continent as late as the 1960s.

"What is not in dispute is that the lion is in danger ... It is highly vulnerable," Mr Breitenmoser said. "What is needed is clear vision and a comprehensive cross-border strategy to secure the survival of the king of the beasts."

Conserving the remaining population of lions was not enough, Mr Breitenmoser said. Strategies to help the the lion population recover were more crucial.

Ms Nowell said she hoped that Africans would not be as "reckless as Europeans" who wiped out their own lion populations which roamed their forests many centuries ago, through shooting, poisoning and snaring. "Lions used to roam Europe but we wiped them out ... I hope Africans will be a bit more sophisticated in managing what is left of their lion population," she said.

Although a combination of factors have taken their toll on the lion population, their conflict with humans was the most significant threat to their survival.

As lions lost their habitat, they were encroaching on human settlements for food and preying on livestock. This forced farmers to shoot them. Ms Nowell said although lions and humans had lived together largely amicably for the past 10,000 years, rapid modernisation and the loss of traditional ways of living in the past century had upset the balance.

In south-eastern Tanzania, for example, about 100 people were eaten every year by lions. "The victims eaten are mostly people walking home drunk," she said. This did not happen in ancient times because people largely avoided things that put them in conflict with wild animals. There was also a growing habit across Africa of livestock being allowed to graze at night instead of keeping animals secure inside villages.

Because of the increased interaction between lions and humans, the big cats have developed a taste for human flesh, raising the stakes in conservation efforts. Once lions develop a taste for human flesh, they became bolder and unafraid of humans.

South-east Tanzania has Africa's biggest population of lions with more than 5,000 animals. Northern Mozambique also has a very significant population though estimates of the actual numbers are sketchy.

At the conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Bangkok in 2004, Kenya, alarmed at its falling numbers, proposed that the African lion be put in the top category Appendix 1 - which would mean all trade in lion products, such as skins and trophy heads, would be outlawed. But other African countries disagreed and the move failed.

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