Landscapes that host lions provide more ecosystem services than those that do not, a new report released to mark this year’s World Lion Day has found.The report, dubbed The New Lion Economy, explores the contribution of lions to African economies not just through traditional revenue earners such as tourism or trophy hunting but through wider ecological services including water sources, food security, and carbon capture, which are integral to healthy human societies. The findings show that where lions are present, ecosystems are healthier and there is a net positive benefit to people in terms of livelihoods and sustainable development.
“Landscapes supporting lions, 'lionscapes', provide more ecosystem services, the benefits that humans receive from healthy ecosystems, than the average across Africa. Yet many of these services will disappear if ecosystems are lost or degraded. Lions therefore make excellent indicators of ecosystem services and sustainable development,” states the report.
According to the report authors, lions support African economies by attracting tourists which directly contributes to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), improving ecosystems thus contributing to food security and improved viability of water sources, and by diversifying livelihoods through creation of conservancies and alternative economies that do not threaten wildlife. Lions have also remained a powerful symbol of African cultural and spiritual values.
“Investing in lion conservation is not simply a charitable act that might protect populations of one particular species, however important. It also protects the many commercial and subsistence values that rely on lions directly, or that rely on the landscapes where lions live, and come as a no-cost extra to conservation,” said Kaddu Sebunya, Chief Executive Officer at the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), who wrote the report’s foreword.
He urged a more holistic approach to conservation not just as something that is good for wildlife, but as a key pillar of Africa’s economic development, a point of view echoed by the report authors who argued for a multi-pronged, multi-stakeholder effort in halting and reversing the gradual degradation of biodiversity in Africa and beyond.
“If Africa is to retain its biodiversity, support a rapidly expanding human population and a growing economy, decision-makers need to maintain ecosystem services as essential life-support mechanisms. Unlocking the value of lions and their landscapes can contribute to these aims,” said the report.
Lions continue to be under threat from the perennial threats of poaching, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat loss, leading authorities to raise alarm about the possible extinction of the king of the jungle if urgent action is not taken.
The Kenyan government, for instance, warned in March this year that lions in the country could go extinct in 15 to 20 years if nothing is done to save them.
“Loss of habitat and biodiversity due to corruption, climate change, poverty, and increased human population pose the greatest threat to the conservation of wildlife, protected areas, and the country’s ecosystem,” said Dr. John Waithaka, the chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service Board.
Rising popularity in lion bone trade in Asian markets where they are used for a variety of dubious functions including wine production and traditional medicine has led to escalating lion poaching levels in Africa. Under international trade regulations gazetted by the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (or CITES), the only lion products that can be legally traded are those harvested from South African lions which are captive-bred for that purpose.
But as is typical of other forms of wildlife trade, a legal lion bone market has only fueled more demand for the product leading to the poaching of wild lions from other parts of the continent.
“For many years, conservationists and animal protection activists have suggested that the powerful poaching syndicates operating between Africa and Asia for rhino horn and elephant are utilizing existing logistics and channels for the lion bone trade. With the unabated supply of lion bones, both captive-bred and wild lions are in the line of fire,” said AWF Senior Conservation Scientist Nakedi Maputla in a recent blog post.
It is against this background that World Lion Day will be celebrated this year with calls for more investments towards protecting lion landscapes in order to safeguard’s the continent’s natural ecosystems.
AWF has been heavily involved in protecting lion populations across the continent, with projects that focus on community empowerment to reduce human-wildlife conflict, reduction of habitat loss to maintain the integrity of lionscapes, and concerted campaigns against illegal wildlife trade.