Lions' place reserved in SA
AFRICA'S lion population is on the decline but South Africa is bucking the trend by keeping its lion numbers stable.
A study published in the latest Biodiversity and Conservation journal found that Africa's lion population had dropped from about 100000 in the 1960s to only 32000 now.
The international study, "The size of savannah Africa: A Lion's (Panthera leo) View", found that only nine countries - including South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana - had lion populations of at least 1000 and five countries have lost all their lions since a similar study in 2002.
The study looked specifically at the space available for lions to live in and found that 78% of their habitat (savannah grassland and woodland) they had once roamed in sub-Saharan Africa no longer existed.
"It is not just for lions," said Dr Paul Funston, of the Tshwane University of Technology's department of nature conservation, who contributed to the study. "It is for wildlife in general. Lions are just at the top of the food chain."
Funston said that, though the decline in lion numbers across Africa was a reality, the situation in South Africa was far different.
The South African lion population was stable, especially in the two major SANParks reserves, with more than 2000 in the Kruger National Park and adjoining reserves, and 500 in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
In smaller parks and private game reserves, which are home to more than 700 of the country's free-roaming lions, numbers grow to such an extent that rangers had to intervene to keep the numbers down.
"[Rangers] usually try to mimic the [lions'] social processes and remove the dominant male lion after about three years to stabilise breeding," said Dr Sam Ferreira, large-mammal ecologist at SANParks.
But Funston said, though mimicking population processes was perhaps the ideal, and was being implemented by SANParks, most reserves resorted to selling or killing lions to keep their numbers in check.
Elsewhere on the continent, pressures from growth in human populations were threatening lions' habitats. South Africa's large, well-managed parks, with their protected borders, kept this threat at bay.
South Africa had different challenges, such as how to deal with commercial lion breeding, which Funston said had become a "massive industry".
Lion poaching has become an increasing concern.
"In the past two years we have seen an increase in targeting lions for body parts," said Funston.
"With the decline of tiger numbers in Asia, there is a new market for lion bones. Lion-bone wine has become a huge status symbol in Chinese communities."
Though lions are not expected to become extinct soon, Funston said the alarm should be raised now rather than later.
"We don't have hundreds of thousands of lions in Africa," he said.
"If you take an average rugby stadium, you won't even fill all the seats if you fill it with all the lions we've got on the continent."