The population of lions, especially the African Lion (Panthera leo leo) faces threat of extinction due to wildlife-human conflict amid calls by wildlife conservationists to act now and save the king of the jungle.
Irikidzai Ndandazi, the Operations Manager of Antelope Park in Gweru said the African lion is under threat of extinction, adding that if nothing is done as a matter of urgency, future generations might not be able to see the species.
“The lion is a symbol of Africa, and here are trying to conserve this species. Here, we have over 120 lions at various stages of growth.
“The major reason why we have this serious downfall in the lions population is the threat by humans. We have a lot of people who are taking up space which used to be occupied by wildlife and this is threatening the lion’s population,” said Ndandazi.
Antelope Park has embarked on a four-staged lion rehabilitation programme in an effort to increase the population of lions.
“We take cubs from their enclosures on walks so as to horn their hunting skills. The cubs are not taught to hunt but they use their instincts. At 18 months they will be too big for us to walk them. We go on night encounters to hunt with them as they round up their hunting skills.
“Later, they are put into prides depending on their behaviors and age. The pride is then put into the second stage known as the release site (manageable ecosystem) where they will hunt on their own. There will be no more human contact and we will test the pride to ensure they are self-sustaining and socially stable,” Ndandazi said.
He added that lions would end up reproducing their own cubs that they will raise in the semi-wild environment. They are aiming to take cubs only and release them into the wild and not their parents.
Gary Jones, the Antelope Park General Manager, said lion plays a pivotal role in the ecosystem since it is the top predator in the jungle and therefore acts as the head of the food chain.
“The lion is a biological filter since it keeps a check on diseases like foot and mouth. It attacks weak animals affected by diseases but its genetic make-up is such that it is not affected by the meat of the sick animal that it eats,” Jones said.
“To keep the lion from going extinct in Africa, governments and conservation organizations should boost budgets for conservation parks and personnel, to keep people from killing the lions’ prey or the big cats themselves,” urged Ndandazi.
Cash-strapped African governments have put little money into lion conservation, in part because wildlife tourism is seemingly absent.
The total population of lions in Africa is currently estimated at about 34,000 animals, down by at least 50 percent from three decades ago.
Animal conservationists from Europe and America are also volunteering in the conservation project while some are helping the communities with teaching and nursing skills at local schools and clinics.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), retaliatory or pre-emptive attacks against lions are the worst threats the species faces.
With human population of sub-Saharan Africa expected to double by the year 2050, this will result in more conversion of habitat to agriculture and more hunting of the wild ungulates which the lions depend upon for prey, and more instances of hungry lions attacking livestock and then being killed in retaliation.