International Lion Day – Lost kingdom of the lions

From the roar of the MGM Lion to popular childhood movies such as The Lion King, we think of these big cats as the kings and queens of their natural environment.

It may surprise you to learn this International Lion Day that there are as few as 23,000 lions living in the wild at this very moment. By contrast, there are 415,000 wild African Elephants in the world, and the dwindling number of lions hasn’t gone unnoticed. How can we give the lion back its roar?

Sadly the lion’s existence isn’t always this peaceful. People and lions trying to co-exist in habitats under mounting pressure are increasingly coming into conflict.

– Cath Lawson, Regional Manager East Africa WWF

A fallen kingdom

Lions, officially known as Panthera leo, are big cats which used to be kings and queens of a vast habitat extending across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and even the southernmost parts of Europe, but no more. The most common surviving remnants of this big cat family are the African Lions. The reign of the lion has waned in recent centuries, as these majestic creatures have retreated back to fragile population clusters almost entirely confined to Africa. A miniscule surviving fragmented population of lions still live in India, but are isolated from the rest of their kind.

One of the most well-known English kings, Richard I, was dubbed Richard the Lionheart, a sign that countless generations from long ago viewed lions with a degree of awe and fear. Now, lions have more to fear from humans than the other way around. As lion numbers have dwindled, the human population has exploded, and lions have struggled to claw back the losses in habitat as a result of this demographic shift.

With a lifespan of 15 years in the wild and 30 years in captivity, African Lions are highly sociable creatures which hunt, mate, live and die as part of familial groupings known as prides. Each pride typically consists of a dominant male, while the lionesses bear the offspring, with pregnancies lasting just over 100 days. Each litter produces two to five cubs on average, and the males are easily distinguishable from the females by possessing a formidable mane of fur.

Return of the lion

Lions are just about great enough in number to avoid being considered endangered just yet, but a population of just 23,000 makes them vulnerable and at risk of going extinct in the event of a sudden catastrophe. Lions are highly territorial creatures, and they are fiercely protective of their prides, as they hunt other animals on the grasslands and savannas of Africa. It is estimated that lion populations in Africa have fallen by 43 per cent in total since the 1990s, the same decade in which these big cats caught our imaginations in the Disney film The Lion King. A lion’s roar is the source of much of its prestige, and can reach a volume of 114 decibels, being audible as far as over 8km away.

Organisations such as the WWF, Born Free, the African Wildlife Foundation and many more are all working at their utmost to preserve our remaining lions. While we can’t be sure about the precise reasons for the decline of lion populations, we can be sure that human activity has contributed towards habitat loss. This pushes lions and other animals into human territory more often, creating a clash of titans.

Humans are instrumental in destroying or saving lions completely. Our behaviour over the coming years could determine whether the lion’s roar is just noise, or whether they can reclaim their lost kingdom in the near future.

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