Across the continent, national parks, reserves, and conservation areas have access to a meager total of US $381 million per year to safeguard lions and other wildlife. A landmark analysis of 282 protected areas with lion populations pegs annual resource needs at a minimum of US $1000 - US $2000 per square kilometer. The financial deficit facing Africa’s protected estate is staggering and urgent — wildlife management authorities require approximately US $1.2 to $2.4 billion to adequately secure lions.
As the apex predators of their natural ecosystems, the struggles facing lions reflect the ecological health of the ecosystem and the authors used lion as a proxy for other species. More than half of the lion’s range across 27 countries falls within protected areas, but the lion’s continental population has dropped by 43 percent in the last 20 years. Only 23,000 - 35,000 individuals remain in the wild due to a combination of human-induced drivers including retaliatory killings, habitat loss, and targeted poaching.
In some countries, the iconic big cat is only one step away from endangered status on IUCN’s Red List. In West Africa, where the lion is critically endangered, aggregated funding data shows that protected area authorities are the most underfunded. Only Kenya, South Africa, and Rwanda recorded annual protected area budgets above US $1600 per sq. kilometer — while they meet the funding requirements, the researchers point out that regional averages are marginally equal and too low. For example, Tanzania, Kenya’s neighbor to the south, allocates a fraction of the required annual budget — less than US $300 per sq. kilometer to secure its parks and wildlife management areas despite being home to more than 40 percent of the continent’s lions.
Lions are one of Africa’s charismatic big cats, attracting thousands of local and international visitors to the continent’s protected areas to watch wildlife in its natural habitat. In sub-Saharan Africa, tourism generates US $34 billion in revenue. Adequate measures are needed to mitigate the threats to these assets or, as the researchers warn, protected areas will lose their value as a strategy for sustainable development.
Without this investment in natural capital, protected area authorities are stretched thin. Yet, the projected costs to protect lions are likely to rise as climate change alters rangeland conditions and pushes other keystone species closer to a crisis. Access to additional financial resources and conservation infrastructure bolsters the boots on the ground to tackle the illegal killing of wildlife, enforce local land-use laws within conservation areas, and prevent further habitat degradation. A reliable source of funding means that more intelligence-led patrols will take place more often, allowing authorities to develop proactive conservation strategies based on real-time information.
By building a comprehensive database of the funds currently available for protected areas with lions, and developing different thresholds of the minimum resources needed, the team of researchers calculated how much Africa needs to invest in biodiversity protection. African Wildlife Foundation co-authored this paper because of its significance and AWF’s recognition of the dearth of funding for protected areas. The study only projects funding requirements to sustain lions at half of the potential size. This means that there is a long way to go before Africa can close the US $1 billion-plus funding gap. Importantly, the data also shows that with sustainable funding and management mechanisms in place, protected areas are capable of supporting three to four times more lions than the current population. AWF is working with protected area authorities across Africa to help them increase revenue for their protected areas.
For national economies, like Rwanda’s, that depend on a vibrant wildlife-based ecotourism industry, allocating enough funds to maintain its protected area system and the iconic species therein is a priority. Ultimately, national parks, reserves, and other state-managed conservation areas must aim to reduce dependence on external sources of funding to support the long-term survival of vulnerable species like the lion.
Kathleen Fitzgerald is AWF's Vice President, Programs East and Southern Africa. She works closely with staff to design and direct land and habitat conservation projects across the continent, including establishing community conservancies, securing wildlife corridors, and improving management of protected areas and community lands.
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