Can science save lions?

18 April 2023


“The key to lion survival is human behaviour, not biology,” explains lion expert Dr Hans Bauer, supported by Born Free for ten years.

A lioness walking through long grass

Hans Bauer, with a group of colleagues attaching a satellite collar to a lion.Lion conservation is at the heart of Born Free’s mission to keep wildlife animals in the wild, helping to ensure the long-term protection of wild populations and promoting coexistence between people and lions.

However, the symbol of Born Free cannot be conserved without the dedication of global scientists striving to understand their behaviour, ecology and interactions with humans.

Since 2013, Born Free has supported Dr Hans Bauer, a world-leading expert on lions with more than 25 years of experience in lion research and conservation, who reports here.

I have been studying lions since 1995 and was part of the earliest efforts to raise awareness about threats to the lion in Africa. For the last ten years, I’ve been working at the University of Oxford, with support from the Born Free Foundation.

Most of my work is centred in countries where previous research has not been focussed – because there are relatively few lions and a lot of challenges – mostly in           West and Central Africa. Often, I work in areas where no lion research or conservation has been done or where their presence was not even known to science!

My work is very different from going on a safari to a lush savannah in Kenya or Botswana. I primarily work with local governments and train local researchers, and actually spend more time with people than with lions – after all the key to lion survival is human behaviour, not biology.

For example, just this week, we are taking local school children to see Benoue National Park in Cameroon (pictured below) and teach them about their natural heritage, and the importance of lions in their environment. We have been doing trips like this for years and have found that parents listen more to our message if it comes from their kids.

A group of local school children on a visit to see Benoue National Park
Bushcamp for schools in Cameroon (Credit: Serge Kamgang) 

Scientists have found solutions for many of the problems in lion conservation and have assisted governments to make action plans but, unfortunately implementation is often hindered by lack of resources. As a consequence, lion numbers continue to decline across Africa.

Lions are emblematic in African and global cultures, but the fight for lions is actually a proxy fight for nature. Lions depend on healthy ecosystems, with thriving prey populations in secure habitat; therefore, the benefits of lion conservation trickles down the entire food chain, conserving many other species in the ecosystem.

Where resources are available, lions can recover, offering hope that we can prevent their extinction. We have pioneered some of the first lion collaring, translocation, de-snaring, and monitoring programs in West and Central Africa and trained people on the way.

These methods are now used successfully at larger scales by conservation organisations in Senegal, Benin, Cameroon and Central African Republic, for example. Governments of Congo and Ivory Coast, where lions have disappeared are even thinking of reintroducing them.

However, these are glimmers of hope on a continent that faces many challenges, and realistically we must expect some further declines. I’m almost certain, however, that the lion will not go extinct in our lifetime, and that a next generation of scientists is ready to do even better.

Support lion conservation and help the symbol of Born Free to coexist with people so both can thrive by donating to our End Wildlife Conflict appeal.

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