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Expanding Beyond Conventional Conservation to Save African Lions

There is a lion in Tanzania who ignites my passion. A beautiful young male ranging through one of our focal areas, a place where people and lions cohabitate and sometimes conflict. I’ve been tracking him for several years now, and still, he survives. He is part of a coalition with two other males. About a year or so ago, they battled their way to the top, becoming the dominant pride males in the area.

The presence of Alarikoni (“leader” in the Maa language) and his compatriots is a continual sign of hope for me in the struggle to save one of Tanzania’s most endangered lion populations. I believe hope is a necessary part of ensuring that we sustain the fight for wild lions. But, at a time when lions face so many challenges, faith on its own is not enough. The real change begins when we channel our hope into urgent, targeted action—sometimes beyond the parameters of conventional conservation.

Recent estimates report that as few as 20,000 lions remain in the wild, representing a nearly 90 percent decline over the last century. The problems creating these catastrophic losses—human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss, unregulated sport hunting, indiscriminate snaring, and poaching for the sale of lion body parts—are all caused by humans. Therefore, overcoming them requires human solutions that we can all be a part of.

Taking action beyond protected areas
The main challenge my team faces in keeping Alarikoni alive is the fact that much of his range overlaps with the pastures of a local Maasai community. As with many other places in Africa and across the world, this land has no formal conservation status. A mere 10–15% of the earth’s surface area is formally protected, leaving countless numbers of lions and other wildlife at risk.

Photo by African People & Wildlife/Felipe Rodriguez

Protected areas are critical reservoirs for lions, but taken alone, many are not on the right scale for Africa’s big cats. A lion’s range can be up to 4,500 square kilometers, which far exceeds many of these spaces. In fact, 68 percent of lions’ remaining potential range lies outside of protected areas. We must fight to preserve the expansive landscapes that big cats require to breed and hunt in. Their survival depends on it. These vital lands still hold the key to connectivity and the genetic viability not only of lions but leopards and cheetahs as well.

Expanding impact through shared expertise
To protect these critical landscapes, I believe we must implement deep, meaningful strategies for engaging with the communities who live within them—going far beyond the conventional, ecological realm of conservation. To do this effectively, the conservation community will require practitioners who are technically skilled in asking, “What are the local people passionate about? What is important to them?” They must be equipped to help communities discover their own motivations for protecting wildlife and to empower them to achieve their conservation goals. When conservationists involve local people as partners and tap into their expertise, those people become part of the solution. And if the solutions are linked to incentives that improve local livelihoods, interventions can become sustainable over the long-term.

Photo by African People & Wildlife/Cameron Zegers

When we combine our efforts with those of local communities—and with other organizations and individuals—we also have the power to expand our impact. Together with our partners in northern Tanzania, we are working to reduce human-wildlife conflict, secure healthy rangelands for both people and big cats, protect watersheds for future generations, implement economic programs that uplift livelihoods, improve sexual and reproductive health, build climate resilient communities, and educate tomorrow’s conservation leaders.

When conflict is reduced and livelihoods are improved, the attitudes of local people toward wildlife begin to shift. For example, our data indicate that people who have been impacted by our conflict-prevention programs increasingly recognize the opportunities that come from living alongside lions rather than in competition with them.

Beginning a new journey of conservation
The impact on lions shows. On this World Lion Day, our team is celebrating more annual sightings of lions than in previous years, improved pride structure, and the prevention of hundreds of potential conflicts with lions each year. In the Lake Burunge-Manyara landscape—a highly threatened ecosystem with historically high levels of human-wildlife conflict—the lion population is rebounding. Our team is working with the people there to actively prevent retaliatory killings and to secure local livelihoods with hundreds of Living Walls. While human-wildlife conflict still exists, we now have a better way to manage it because local communities are invested partners.

Photo: African People & Wildlife/Laly Lichtenfeld

We can save big cats. I know we can. But to do so, it will take bigger, braver efforts that find ways to derive balanced solutions for what are often considered conflicting agendas—people versus wildlife. When we acknowledge and appreciate the people living alongside big cats, then we begin a new journey that recognizes the face of conservation is a human one. By realizing and acting on this, we can have a tremendous impact going forward.

Making your voice heard
You don’t have to be a conservationist to make a difference for lions—everyone has a role to play. Find out what your government leaders are doing to protect wildlife and the environment. Send them a message to let them know what matters to you. Sign petitions to put pressure on lawmakers to pass or maintain legislation that conserves endangered wildlife. Right now, the U.S. Endangered Species Act is under threat, potentially putting hundreds of species at risk of extinction in the coming years. Support organizations that protect lions and other wildlife. Share stories of their work to help educate and inspire others.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) recently failed to completely protect lions from global trade, allowing the sale of bones, teeth, and claws from captive-bred lions. Such regulations only increase the risks for wild lions. Speak out and educate others about the unsustainable trade in wildlife products and avoid buying them. Finally, many corporations are taking a stand against the trafficking of illegal wildlife products. By making informed buying decisions, you can help protect endangered wildlife.

Keep transforming your hope into action because every single individual action matters.

A few months ago, I witnessed Alarikoni mating with a lioness in one of our conservation areas. Please join me in the fight to keep the next generation of his cubs alive.

To learn more about the African People & Wildlife’s community-driven conservation initiatives, please click here.

Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld is the co-founder and executive director of African People & Wildlife. She is also a grantee of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.