Saving the Big Cats of Central Mozambique

Posted by Paola Bouley of Projecto Leões da Gorongosa – Gorongosa Lion Project in Cat Watch

The famous Lion House Pride in Gorongosa National Park (1960s). Gorongosa was once a stronghold for wildlife and today an ambitious, large-scale restoration project is underway to restore it to its former glory. (Courtesy Gorongosa National Park)
It wasn’t too long ago that Central Mozambique was considered lost territory for the big cats, a place where they would soon no longer roam wild and free. But today an effort is underway to hold the line against extinction and ensure that the African lion has its rightful place here into the foreseeable future.  This thanks to a 25-year commitment to restore Gorongosa National Park and a stellar team of scientists, community educators and organizers, cinematographers, and funders—including National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative.

Before the 1977-92 war in Mozambique, Gorongosa’s lions were a famous tribe, strong in their numbers alongside the vast buffalo herds that roamed the plains. Today a few dozen of these resilient individuals rebounded (possibly more) from near extirpation, although a thorough accounting of how many and where has never been done. Impossible to effectively restore and conserve what we don’t sufficiently understand, in 2012 Projecto Leões da Gorongosa was launched and we began the important and exciting work of putting Gorongosa’s lions back on the map.

When our field-work first began we spent many-a-night on the roof of Lion House,” famous for its stair-climbing lions who claimed this colonial-era structure as part of their dominion back in the 1960s. Lying on the southern edge of the vast floodplains of Lake Urema, it is the highest point for miles around and one can fully appreciate why lions would favor this outpost. From the roof you can see Mount Gorongosa rising over the lowlands filled with sable, waterbuck, reedbuck, oribi, and the occasional wildebeest; The mountain’s rainforest and cascades filter down the essential waters that nourish all this wildlife, including the perilously endangered population of Panthera leo.

A lioness with Mt. Gorongosa rising above Lake Urema and its floodplains. (Photograph Adolfo Macadona)
A lioness with Mt. Gorongosa rising above Lake Urema and its floodplains. (Photograph Adolfo Macadona)

Gorongosa is a wild place and lions here are elusive. Anyone who works with these big cats knows well that trying to find them during daylight hours as they slumber in the deep scrub and tall grass is akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack; it can be (and is) done, but the night hours when they are most active is the better time to be out working the lion shift. So we became nocturnal creatures ourselves and Lion House became our night-refuge, a mission control center of sorts, where we could safely convene in the dark hours to hear out the location of local prides (conveniently not having to watch our backs if we inadvertently snoozed off). Any roar would send us swinging down the stairs in the dead of night, into our vehicle and off to try identify who was out patrolling the dirt roads. It took many weeks of preparation and learning as the lions slowly revealed themselves, then just outright sweat and definitely tears (on my part for sure) before we found ourselves in the right place at the right time to collar our first lion. We made that crucial leap early this year when our team satellite-collared our 1st male—who has since led us on to more lions, being the highly social creature that he is.

Paola Bouley (left) and Rui Branco (right) collar the 1st lion.  (Photograph by James Byrne)
Paola Bouley (left) and Rui Branco (right) collar the 1st lion. (Photograph by James Byrne)

Satellite monitoring of our lions has been crucial in these early stages of our work. The real-time capabilities of this technology means we can rapidly locate lions anytime of the day and document their social interactions (meaning we find more lions, and faster too), diet (understand what lions in a recovering ecosystem subsist on), sources of any mortality (human or otherwise), and their response to the extreme flooding and environmental change that occurs in the Park each year.

A typical mating signal from the satellite data alerts us to the presence of other lions and we are able to deploy into the field immediately.
A typical mating signal from the satellite data alerts us to the presence of other lions and we are able to deploy into the field immediately.

Most importantly, as we succeed in collaring prides in more remote areas we’ll be able to understand how lions interact with the boundaries of the Park and Gorongosa’s human communities and aide the Park in securing expanded protected areas for lions. It’s also essential for anti-poaching  as we are able to document core areas for strategic de-snaring operations and if a collared lion’s movements seems unusual—or cease to move for an extended period possibly due to a poacher’s snare—we can deploy a rapid-response team and help save a precious life.

PLG’s team documents poaching and works with law enforcement to focus strategic de-snaring where lions and snares will potentially coincide.  (Photograph by Paola Bouley)
PLG’s team documents poaching and works with law enforcement to focus strategic de-snaring where lions and snares will potentially coincide. (Photograph by Paola Bouley)

Now with each additional lion identified, tracked and those collared we gain more insight into the ecology of the Park’s largest carnivore while also helping secure their conservation. A thorough accounting of how many lions and where is now solidly underway in this Park for the first time ever.  And what we learn from this recovering population has the potential to inform the science of wild lion recovery in savannah ecosystems across southern Africa; a need that sadly only continues to grow as lion populations across the continent face ever greater challenges.

Projecto Leões da Gorongosa is dedicated to the recovery and conservation of big cats in the Gorongosa Ecosystem of Central Mozambique.   We work in direct partnership with the Gorongosa Restoration Project: a 20-year Public-Private Partnership between the Government of Mozambique and the Carr Foundation, a U.S. non-profit organization.

Stay tuned for Projecto Leões‘s upcoming blog with co-author Domingos Muala (local historian) highlighting the social histories of Gorongosa’s lion-people relationships and how we’ll work with National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative to foster co-existence with these big cats. The Big Cat Initiative will also support the training of Mozambique’s first women to work directly on lion research and conservation – updates on this exciting development to come soon!



Lions Approach Extinction in West Africa

New study paints dire picture and outlines conservation needs.

Lions in South and East Africa, like this male cat in Botswana, are better known than their cousins in West Africa, which tend to be smaller and are now highly endangered. Photograph by Pete Oxford, Nature Picture Library/Corbis
Lions in South and East Africa, like this male cat in Botswana, are better known than their cousins in West Africa, which tend to be smaller and are now highly endangered.
Photograph by Pete Oxford, Nature Picture Library/Corbis

By Brian Clark Howard / National Geographic

Lions may soon disappear entirely from West Africa unless conservation efforts improve, a new study predicts.

The study, published January 8 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE, presents “sobering results” of a survey that took six years and covered 11 countries.

Lions once ranged from Senegal to Nigeria, a distance of more than 1,500 miles. The new survey found an estimated total of only 250 adult lions occupying less than one percent of that historic range. The lions form four isolated populations: one in Senegal; two in Nigeria; and a fourth on the borders of Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Only that last population has more than 50 lions.

2“It was really not known that the status of the lion was so dire in West Africa,” study co-author Philipp Henschel, the Gabon-based survey coordinator for the big cat conservation group Panthera, told National Geographic. “In many countries it was not known that there were no more lions in those areas because there had been no funding to conduct surveys.”

Henschel and his colleagues built on previous work by Duke University researchers, which like the new survey received funding from National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. The new survey covered 21 protected areas in 11 countries in West Africa.

“All of these still contain suitable, intact lion habitat, and we thought all would contain lions,” said Henschel. “But instead we found only four isolated and severely imperiled populations.”

A Separate Subspecies?

The taxonomy of the West African lion is currently being reviewed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based on recent genetic studies that suggest it may be a distinct subspecies from the more familiar lions of southern and eastern Africa, which are thought to number less than 35,000. Henschel said he supports the naming of a new subspecies. It would most likely be designated as “critically endangered,” which would encourage more international support for conservation efforts, he said.

West African lions are lighter in build than the ones in East and South Africa. They appear to have longer legs, and the males have thinner manes.

“Lions in West Africa are genetically more different from lions in East and Southern Africa than Siberian tigers are from Indian tigers,” said Hans de Iongh, a lion researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who did not participate in the new study. West African lions appear to be more similar to the extinct “Barbary lions” that once roamed North Africa, and to the last Asiatic lions surviving in India, said Henschel.

West African lions also tend to form much smaller prides. “In East and South Africa, you can have prides of up to 40 individuals, but in West Africa prides are usually one male, one to two females, and their dependent offspring,” said Henschel.

West Africa is more heavily forested than other parts of the continent. Historically, lions did penetrate into the dense woods, but in recent years they have been largely confined to more open woodlands and savannah-like lands in protected areas. Overall, the soils are poorer and prey is less abundant in the west, “which probably explains the lower pride sizes,” Henschel said.

Threats to the West African Lion

The lion’s historic range in West Africa was drastically reduced by large-scale land use changes, Henschel said. As people planted farms, cut down trees, and hunted wildlife, the big cats had few places to go. The small islands of protected parks became their only hope.

But in the past few years, lions in those parks have been killed by local people in retaliation for killing some of their livestock. An even bigger problem, Henschel said, is poaching of the lions’ prey to supply local bushmeat markets. With the economy in the region depressed and fish stocks off the coast depleted, hungry people have increasingly turned to hunting animals in protected areas.

“Bushmeat has become so valuable that it is becoming international,” Henschel said. “In Burkina Faso we saw poachers coming from Nigeria, 100 miles [160 kilometers] away, to shoot big animals and carry them across the border in pickup trucks.”

Parks in West Africa have simply not had the resources to prevent retaliatory killings or poaching, said Henschel. “When we looked at the 21 management areas, we realized that six of them had no operating budget at all, and compared to the big game parks in South and East Africa, they are all understaffed. These ‘paper parks’ are systematically being stripped by poachers.”

De Iongh, who has studied West African lions for more than 20 years but has not yet reviewed the new paper, said, “I can confirm that the situation is very bleak. This region has been neglected by the conservation world for many years and only in recent years have some conservation funds become available.”

Can West African Lions Be Saved?

The fate of the lion in West Africa will be decided “in the next five years, or maybe even less,” said Henschel. “If we can find sufficient funding, in cooperation with national authorities and the international community, then I think there is hope. There are committed individuals on the ground, but they lack funding.”

Henschel said the secret to long-term success will be supplementing conservation dollars with an alternative revenue stream, such as the nature-based tourism that pumps billions of dollars into South and East Africa every year. West Africa has not gotten much tourism in the past, Henschel said, and “West African governments have been reluctant to invest in their protected areas because they cannot be sure of short-term returns.”

“West African lions have unique genetic sequences not found in any other lions, including in zoos or captivity,” Christine Breitenmoser, co-chair of the IUCN/SCC Cat Specialist Group, said in a statement. “If we lose the lion in West Africa, we will lose a unique, locally adapted population found nowhere else. It makes their conservation even more urgent.”

Henschel said he is cautiously optimistic. Perhaps the World Bank, foreign governments, or other international agencies will be inspired to help the region develop an infrastructure for responsible tourism, he suggested.

“In the Russian Far East, Siberian tigers are now doing better with all the money invested, because everyone knows about the status of the tiger,” Henschel said. “We hope to create similar projects in West Africa.”

Project Leonardo

image001 image002 image003Saving Africa’s Lions

Although the lion is one of Africa’s most iconic animals, few people realize that illegal killing, relentless habitat loss and depletion of their natural prey has left this species teetering precariously on the brink of extinction.

image004The lion, Africa’s largest carnivore, is in jeopardy. Easily seen in a handful of game parks, it is almost unthinkable to imagine the lion as a species requiring urgent conservation attention. Yet lions are disappearing. Only a century ago, there were as many as 200,000 wild lions in Africa.  Today, the latest surveys estimate that there are fewer than 30,000. Lions are classified as globally “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In West and Central Africa, they are now considered “Regionally Endangered”.

Africa’s lions face a three-fold threat:

  • Persecution by herders and farmers. Lions and people are on a collision course as natural habitat is converted for hu­man use, and livestock replaces natural prey. This fuels intense conflict situations where lions are speared, shot or, worst of all, poisoned.
    • Kenya alone loses at least 100 of its 2,000 wild lions every year due to killing by people. At this rate, there will be no more wild lions in Kenya by 2030.
  • Dramatic loss and fragmentation of habitat due to an ever-expanding agricultural frontier. Lions have vanished from over 80% of their historical range.
    • Lions are now extinct in 26 countries that they formerly inhabited.
    • Only 7 countries – Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – are thought to each protect more than 1,000 lions.
  • A sharp decline in natural prey due to overhunting by humans. This establishes a vicious cycle in which lions are forced to prey on livestock, driving further conflict with humans in which the lion is always the loser.

Panthera’s Solution

Project Leonardo is Panthera’s solution to protecting and increasing the world’s remaining lion populations.  Despite the severity and extent of the threats to wild lions, hope remains. Humans and lions both evolved in Africa and have shared their homes for millennia. The key is fostering, or in some cases merely reviving, the solutions that local people need to live in close proximity to Africa’s great cat.

image005Africa’s parks protect vital core populations of lions that are essential for their conservation, but reserves and national parks, in isolation, no longer guarantee the long-term survival of the species. Many areas set aside to protect lions and other wildlife are now occupied by people. Even well-protected parks have human populations living on their boundaries, where the conflict with lions, and their decline, is the greatest.

This is why Panthera focuses on the most important areas for lions under the greatest threat – Lion Conflict Landscapes. We identify and survey Lion Conflict Landscapes across the range of the species, from Senegal to South Africa. We then introduce tools and techniques that mitigate conflict between lions and people, and prevent the reasons that people kill lions.

This is the first time a conservation plan has been envisioned for lions across their entire African range. Panthera’s vision entails keeping lions in areas where they are most rapidly declining, and building or shoring up corridors to guarantee safe passage between key lion populations.

Panthera’s Lion Footprint

image006Panthera’s task in Africa is enormous. We are committed to conserving lions at a scale that has not yet been attempted, and we are uniquely positioned to do so with our far-reaching network of on-the-ground experts and decades of expertise. Panthera works from both directions: bottom-up with communities, governments, park guards, and teachers, and top-down with policy-makers, heads of wildlife and environment agencies, presidents and prime ministers. We are teaming up with local partners and providing them with the training and the assistance they need to effect conservation in their own countries, a vital component of any long-term conservation strategy.

Project Leonardo is working in many countries and regions to protect the African lion, including Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo and West Africa.

Click here to learn about what we are doing in these areas.

Read Panthera’s Lion Brochure: Project Leonardo: Saving Africa’s Lions

Read Panthera’s Lion Report Card: The State of the Lion.

Click here to: Meet the Lion


Walking with Lions: The Myth of Conservation

Posted by Luke Hunter

2009-09-29-Phindachargingmale_92909Barely a month goes by without news of someone getting into a tussle with a ‘tame’ big cat. A recent case in point showed a young lion in a South African resort roughing up a British journalist who thought it would make good copy to go into the animal’s cage for a close encounter. It’s easy to dismiss the stunt as journalistic nonsense (which it is) but dozens of operations across Africa sell similarly close encounters with lions to the average tourist. For a fee, just about anyone can play with cubs, take a stroll with young lions or pose for photos to show the folks back home.

Inevitably, the marketing behind these outfits is heavy on the C-word — ‘conservation.’ Visitors are told relentlessly that, by handing over their cash to cozy up to tame lions, they are helping to save the species in the wild. There’s little doubt that lions are in dire need — they have been eradicated from over 80% of their range in Africa alone — but don’t believe their advertising. Churning out cubs for photo opportunities is a great revenue earner but none of those cubs are set free. They are too tame. If they were ever to wander into a village or farm looking for a belly rub or a feed, the surprised locals would, not unreasonably, reach for their rifles or spears. Even assuming there is someplace sufficiently wild and people-free, captive-raised lions simply don’t have the skills and experience to survive. Many of the tame lions released by Joy and George Adamson (of ‘Born Free’ and Christian the Lion fame) starved to death, were killed by people and wild lions or, in some cases, killed people themselves and were shot.

The more sophisticated operations counter this by declaring that tame, tourist-friendly lions are not intended for release: rather, only later generations of captive-bred lions, not exposed to people, will be set free. Even setting aside the formidable obstacles in ‘training’ captive-bred lions to be wild, there simply isn’t the need. In South Africa, there are now more than 500 reintroduced lions in 37 reserves — the key difference being that all of them are wild born and bred. Starting back in 1992, South African biologists pioneered the process of translocating wild lions from marginal areas and reintroducing them into areas where people had wiped them out. It takes money and has risks, but considerably less of both than using captive lions. Wild lions captured in one place are already much better equipped to survive as wild lions in another place. But, of course, using wild lions to re-establish the species rules out charging gullible tourists for an up-close experience. Cue cub cuddling.

If all of this fails to convince you to think twice about paying for an ‘encounter,’ ask the handlers point blank how many of their lions have gone back to the wild? If they furnish you a figure, they are probably lying. As I write this, I do not know of one example. In fact, most of them never actually attempt releases. Which begs another question — what really happens to their lions? When cubs grow up, they cost a lot to feed and maintain, and they need to pay their way somehow. No problem. There is a thriving market for lions, mainly in South Africa, among ‘lion farmers.’ They buy surplus cats, much as livestock producers buy new stock on auction, and they breed them. For hunting. As adults, the cubs that cavort with tourists often end up in the gun-sights of trophy hunters. It’s quite legal provided you have the permits. If you don’t believe me, have a look at this report from the excellent South African program Carte Blanche.

The bottom line is, the ‘lion encounter’ industry is only that — an industry. I’m the first to applaud businesses finding ways for wildlife to generate a profit when it actually helps protect that wildlife. The same tourists who spend $200 for an afternoon of walking with tame lions could instead visit nearby national parks and game reserves where the entry price and lodge fees truly do help to conserve wildlife. For my money, stick with the real thing: no matter what the glossy brochures and slick websites claim, it won’t ever involve tame lions.

bios-150x190-lhunterDr. Luke Hunter is the Executive Director at Panthera, the leading global nonprofit organization devoted to saving the world’s wild cat species from the diminutive black-footed cat of southern Africa to the massive tiger of Asia. Hunter has conducted fieldwork on large cats in Africa since 1992. His current projects include assessing the effects of sport hunting and illegal persecution on leopards outside protected areas, developing a conservation strategy for lions across their African range, and the first intensive study of Persian leopards and the last surviving Asiatic cheetahs in Iran.

Read this Article on the Huffington Post

Listen to a BBC Radio interview with Dr. Hunter on the viability of reintroduction efforts for wild vs. captive lions to repopulate lion populations.


Desert Lions (full documentary)HD

Photo: Central Kalahari Reserve
Photo: Central Kalahari Reserve

Africa’s Namib Desert is a harsh and unforgiving place, home to shifting, barren sand dunes, jagged mountains, and gravel plains. The vast desert — whose name means “place of no people” in the local Khoikhoi language — covers nearly 100,000 square miles and stretches along some 1,200 miles of the coast of western Namibia, in southern Africa. In the ancient 55-million-year-old desert, the world’s oldest, rainfall is scarce (less than 2 tenths of an inch per year in the west), and there is no surface water and just a few dry riverbeds.

And, yet, surprisingly, the Namib is a living place, home not just to the big cats featured in The Desert Lions, but to an impressive array of plants and animals. In the Namib live gemsboks (oryx) and springboks, ungulates that can avoid drinking water for weeks at a time by ceasing to sweat, plus a large number of small rodents and reptiles and a stunning diversity of beetles — which, like desert vegetation, have devised techniques to condense water out of the western desert’s distinctive, eerie, and life-giving morning fog. The fog is produced when the cool waters of the offshore Benguela Current interact with the warmer air over the desert. The Benguela also moderates the desert’s climate; temperatures in the searing, arid desert rarely rise over 104 degrees Fahrenheit (but can drop to near freezing at night).

More than just the beginning of a new day for lions, Danka and Ducey

By: Kelly Donithan

Danka takes in the view in her new enclosure.
Danka takes in the view in her new enclosure.

As I awoke Tuesday morning in rural Missouri, I could hear a steady pitter-pattering on the windowsill: it’s raining.

Of course it’s raining.

Lions don’t typically like the water, so if it’s falling from the sky, you can probably bet that they are in their dens and unlikely to come out until the skies clear.

Thankfully, as the morning progressed and even though the clouds still hung low and rain came and went, both Danka and Ducey were willing to leave their dens and give us a reasonable chance at loading them into their transport crates.

WATCH: gearing up to rescue Danka and Ducey, two captive lions in Missouri

While the entire process took about four hours, Danka – hands down – gave me the biggest, and sweetest, surprise.

With some effort, the elderly lioness walked into her transport crate without the need of chemical immobilization, significantly lowering the risk to her health during the move.

I was both stunned and overjoyed at her tenacity and determination.

While she continues to struggle with hind limb paresis (Watch a video of her here), her spirit will clearly carry her great distances.

Mr. Ducey however, was a different story.

After much coaxing, we finally had to make the decision immobilize him and carry a sleeping, 600lb (at least!) Ducey into his crate. Once they were both resting comfortably in the warm, dry trailer – we were off!

I’m happy to report that all the kind thoughts and prayers of our supporters like you were well received and appreciated, as both lions made the 10-hour trip without mishap. We arrived at Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary on the border of Mississippi and Alabama during the middle of Tuesday night and rested until daybreak.

Like the star she is, Danka strolled right out of her transport crate into her new, beautiful enclosure. She immediately began exploring, and shocked us all when her feeble body began playing with a boomer ball!

It was more than just the beginning of a new day for her, and I felt so blessed to have had the opportunity to bear witness.

The author leading relocation efforts.
The author leading relocation efforts.

Of course, Ducey needed some time.

After about two hours and a couple of tasty treats to regain some trust, he debarked his crate and met up with Danka, who was clearly excited to show him around their new home.

It is all too easy to blame the owners who acquire wildlife, like Danka and Ducey, for a myriad reasons, none of which are in the best interest of the animals.

We must continue to educate the public on the inappropriateness, inhumane, and dangerous situations created when they purchase a big cat or other wild animal. Additionally, we must pursue stronger, effective legislation, such as the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act, and support timely and proper enforcement.

Unfortunately, Danka and Ducey will never know the sights, smells, and sounds of the African savannah.

However, I believe that our efforts with the help of Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge have provided these lions with the best possible quality of life at Cedarhill Animal Sanctuary. Even though it’s not Africa, they will still be able to sing and roar in unison with the four other African lions currently sharing their territory.


Click here to learn more about this issue and IFAW’s role in protecting big cats in the U.S.

Credits: IFAW- International Fund for Animal Welfare

Lion Ark Movie

From our friends at ADI

If you have any volunteers who would want help promote this locally—leafleting at the Festival or putting leaflets around to local veg/vegan friendly businesses, restaurants, etc—they will receive a complimentary ticket to one of the screenings. If you have anyone who would be interested, please put them in touch with either myself or Amanda


Lion Ark screenings at Fort Lauderdale Film Festival:

Monday October 28 at 5:30pm
at cinema Mucivo Pompano

2315 N Federal Hwy, Pompano Beach, FL 33062 map

Thursday October 31at 3:30pm
at Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood
2008 Hollywood Blvd. Hollywood, FL 33020 map

Friday November 1 at 5:30pm
at Cinema Paradiso-Ft Lauderdale
503 SE 6th St, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301 map
Buy tickets here:

More about Lion Ark trailer

Reviewers have said:  “Lion Ark is the feel-good movie of the year!” (Reel Talk);  “one of your must-see films of 2013” (The Independent Critic); “A consciousness-raising milestone of a documentary” (The Ecologist); “will restore some faith in humanity.” (“A deeply important film about bravely taking a stand against animal cruelty.” (FatFreefilm).  Read more Lion Ark reviews

For further information contact: Amanda Hudson at or 323-935-2234.

Thank you so much!

Tim Phillips
Director, Lion Ark

ADI Films

6100 Wilshire Boulevard, #1150
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Tel:  (323) 935 2234
Fax: (323) 935 9234 

Credits: Big Cat Rescue

Genomes of big cats revealed


The DNA of Taegeuk, a Siberian tiger at Everland Zoo, South Korea, was sequenced
The DNA of Taegeuk, a Siberian tiger at Everland Zoo, South Korea, was sequenced

International scientists have mapped the genomes of the tiger, lion and snow leopard, in conservation efforts to protect endangered species.

The research give clues to how big cats evolved to become top predators with superior muscle strength and a carnivorous diet.

The tiger shares 96% of its genes with the house cat, the study in Nature Communications reveals.

Until now, the only cat to have its DNA mapped was the domestic one.

A team led by Yun Sung Cho at the Personal Genomics Institute, Genome Research Foundation in Suwon, South Korea, sequenced the genome of a Siberian tiger.

The individual, Taegeuk, is a nine-year-old male from Everland Zoo in South Korea.

The team then sequenced the DNA of four other big cats – the (African) lion, snow leopard, white (Bengal) tiger and white (African) lion.

This enabled them to compare how the genes matched up in different members of the cat family.

Genetic signatures show how big cats gained their superior muscle strength, the ability to digest large amounts of meat and a keen sense of smell.

The research also gives genetic clues to how the white lion gained its pale coat and how the snow leopard adapted to the snowy mountain ranges.

One of the lead authors of the report, Jong Bhak, said the tiger genome map will be an important resource for looking at genetic diversity.

The preservation of wild tiger populations, currently estimated at less than 4,000 individuals, is now a major goal of animal conservationists.

Snow girl, a white lion, was also sequenced
Snow girl, a white lion, was also sequenced

“Our tiger reference genome can be used as the basis for comparing all the tigers in the world, so that we know the genetic diversity of tigers,” he told the BBC.

“And we can actually have a plan of how we can breed tigers effectively [in zoos] to save the genetic diversity.”

He said cats had been very successful in adapting to their environment as predators, which is reflected in the genomes of both the tiger and the domestic cat.

“Tigers are just a big domestic cat,” he added. “They’re probably much closer than we thought.”

... as was SunDol, an African lion
… as was SunDol, an African lion

Carlos Driscoll is WWF chairman in conservation genetics at the Wildlife Institute of India, Chandrabani.

He said the paper was a watershed in conservation, marking the first non-domestic cat genome to be sequenced.

“This brings the age of genomics to the conservation of these species, which are an umbrella for the conservation of many other animals and habitats,” he said.

“This sets a new standard for the conservation community to follow.”

The research, published in Nature Communications, was led by scientists in South Korea, in collaboration with colleagues in China, the US, Russia, Namibia, South Africa, The Netherlands, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, India and Mongolia.

Credits: BBC News


Living With Lions

Photograph by Brent Stirton
Photograph by Brent Stirton

When people and lions collide, both suffer.

By David Quammen
Photograph by Brent Stirton

Lions are complicated creatures, magnificent at a distance yet fearsomely inconvenient to the rural peoples whose fate is to live among them. They are lords of the wild savanna but inimical to pastoralism and incompatible with farming. So it’s no wonder their fortunes have trended downward for as long as human civilization has been trending up.

There’s evidence across at least three continents of the lions’ glory days and their decline. Chauvet Cave, in southern France, filled with vivid Paleolithic paintings of wildlife, shows us that lions inhabited Europe along with humans 30 millennia ago; the Book of Daniel suggests that lions lurked at the outskirts of Babylon in the sixth century B.C.; and there are reports of lions surviving in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran until well into the 19th or 20th centuries. Africa alone, during this long ebb, remained the reliable heartland.

But that has changed too. New surveys and estimates suggest that the lion has disappeared from about 80 percent of its African range. No one knows how many lions survive today in Africa—as many as 35,000?—because wild lions are difficult to count. Experts agree, though, that just within recent decades the overall total has declined significantly. The causes are multiple—including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching of lion prey for bush meat, poachers’ snares that catch lions instead, displacement of lion prey by livestock, disease, spearing or poisoning of lions in retaliation for livestock losses and attacks upon humans, ritual killing of lions (notably within the Maasai tradition), and unsustainable trophy hunting for lions, chiefly by affluent Americans.

The new assessments, compiled by scientists from Panthera (an international felid conservation group), Duke University, the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, and elsewhere, indicate that African lions now live in nearly 70 distinct areas (view map), the largest and most secure of which can be considered strongholds. But the smallest contain only tiny populations, isolated, genetically limited, and lacking viability for the long term. In other words, the African lion inhabits an archipelago of insular refuges, and more than a few of those marooned populations may soon go extinct.

What can be done to stanch the losses and reverse the trend? Some experts say we should focus efforts on the strongholds, such as the Serengeti ecosystem (spanning Tanzania to Kenya), the Selous ecosystem (southeastern Tanzania), the Ruaha-Rungwa (western Tanzania), the Okavango-Hwange (Botswana into Zimbabwe), and the Greater Limpopo (at the shared corners of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, including Kruger National Park). Those five ecosystems alone account for roughly half of Africa’s lions, and each contains a genetically viable population. Craig Packer has offered a drastic suggestion for further protecting some strongholds: Fence them, or at least some of their margins. Investing conservation dollars in chain-link and posts, combined with adequate levels of patrolling and repair, he argues, is the best way to limit illegal entry into protected areas by herders, their livestock, and poachers, as well as reckless exit from those areas by lions.

Other experts strongly disagree. In fact, this fencing idea goes against three decades of conservation theory, which stresses the importance of connectedness among habitat patches. Packer knows that, and even he wouldn’t put a fence across any valuable route of wildlife dispersal or migration. But consider, for instance, the western boundary of the Serengeti ecosystem, where the Maswa Game Reserve meets the Sukuma agricultural lands beyond. If you fly over that area at low elevation, you’ll see the boundary as a stark edge, delineated by the slash of a red clay road. East of it lies the rolling green terrain of Maswa, covered with acacia woodlands and lush savanna, a virtual extension of Serengeti National Park. West of the road, in the Sukuma zone, you’ll look down on mile after mile of cotton fields, cornfields, teams of oxen plowing bare dirt, paddies, and brown-and-white cows standing in pens. A fence along that boundary, as Packer asserts, could do no harm and possibly some good. It may be a special case, but it’s enough to open a heated discussion.

Trophy hunting is also controversial. Does it contribute to population declines because of irresponsible overharvesting? Or does it effectively monetize the lion, bringing cash into local and national economies and providing an incentive for habitat protection and sustainable long-term management? The answer depends—on particulars of place, on which lions are targeted (old males or young ones), and on the integrity of management, both by the hunting operator and by the national wildlife agency. Certainly there are abuses—countries in which hunting concessions are granted corruptly, situations in which little or no hunting income reaches the local people who pay the real costs of living amid lions, concessions on which too many lions are killed. But in places such as Maswa Game Reserve—where hunts are scrupulously managed in cooperation with the Friedkin Conservation Fund, an organization that cares more about habitat protection than about revenue—the effect of a ban on hunting would be perverse.

Hunting of captive-bred lions released into fenced areas on private ranches, as now widely practiced in South Africa, raises a whole different set of questions. In a recent year 174 such lion-breeding ranches operated in the country, with a combined stock of more than 3,500 lions. Proponents argue that this industry may contribute to lion conservation by diverting trophy-hunt pressure from wild populations and by maintaining genetic diversity that could be needed later. Others fear it may undercut the economics of lion management in, say, Tanzania, by offering cheaper and easier ways to put a lion head on your rec-room wall.

And then there’s the matter of what happens to the rest of the lion. The export of lion bones from South Africa to Asia, where they are sold as an alternative to tiger bones, constitutes a dangerous trend that surely increases demand.

Bottom line: Lion conservation is an intricate enterprise that must now reach across borders, across oceans, and across disciplines to confront a global market in dreams of the wild.

But conservation begins at home, among people for whom the sublime and terrifying wildness of a lion is no dream. One set of such people are the Maasai who inhabit group ranches bordering Amboseli National Park, on the thornbush plains of southern Kenya. Since 2007 a program there called Lion Guardians has recruited Maasai warriors—young men for whom lion killing has traditionally been part of a rite of passage known as olamayio—to serve instead as lion protectors. These men, paid salaries, trained in radiotelemetry and GPS use, track lions on a daily basis and prevent lion attacks on livestock. The program, small but astute, seems to be succeeding: Lion killings have decreased, and the role of Lion Guardian is now prestigious within those communities.

I spent a day recently with a Lion Guardian named Kamunu, roughly 30 years old, serious and steady, whose dark face tapered to a narrow chin and whose eyes seemed permanently squinted against sentiment and delusion. He wore a beaded necklace, beaded earrings, and a red shuka wrapped around him; a Maasai dagger was sheathed on his belt at one side, a cell phone at the other. Kamunu had personally killed five lions, he told me, all for olamayio, but he didn’t intend to kill any more. He had learned that lions could be more valuable alive—in money from tourism, wages from Lion Guardians, and the food and education such cash could buy for a man’s family.

We walked a long circuit that very hot day, winding through acacia bush, crossing a dry riverbed, Kamunu following lion spoor in the dust and me following him. Probably we traipsed about 16 miles. In the morning we tracked a lone adult, recognizable to Kamunu from its big pug as a certain problematic male. When we met a long line of cows headed for water, their bells clanking, attended by several Maasai boys, Kamunu warned the boys to stay clear of that lion.

Around midday he picked up a different trail, very fresh, left by a female with two cubs. We saw her flattened day bed in the herbage beneath a bush. We traced her sinuous route into a grove of scrubby myrrh trees that grew thicker as we went. Kamunu moved quietly. Finally we stopped. I saw nothing but vegetation and dirt.

They’re very close, he explained. This is a good spot. No livestock nearby. We don’t want to push any closer. We don’t want to disturb them. No, we don’t, I agreed.

“We think they are safe here,” he told me. It’s more than can be said for many African lions, but at that moment, in that place, it was enough.

Photo Gallery

When humans are hunted

The State of lions

Credits: National Geographic