Lions and Cattle: How Competition Impacts Conservation
November 20, 2019
November 18, 2019
Can lions and cattle owners co-exist? Panthera’s Kristoffer Everatt has published a new study on the impacts of competition with humans on lion conservation after walking close to 4,000 km across three countries and five National Parks in southern Africa. The study emphasizes the critical role that conflict with livestock owners plays in lion conservation efforts. Consider these three key points:
The most important factor for lion conservation in this landscape was direct competition with cattle owners, who often kill lions in retaliation for preying on their herd.
Landscapes covered by more than 20% of cattle grazing areas are unable to support resident lions and may be dangerous to young dispersing lions.
Increasing cattle herds across Africa, coupled with climate change, threaten to make it even more difficult for lions to persist in their remaining range.
Lions may be known as King of the Jungle but humans, specifically livestock owners, have become their ultimate predator. Panthera scientists recently released a new study on the impacts of competition with humans on lion conservation. The study, published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation, reports on a survey in which Panthera scientist Kristoffer Everatt walked close to 4,000 km across three countries and five national parks in Africa to investigate patterns of lion persistence across the landscape. The study discovered that while lions do suffer from competition with human hunters over wild prey, the most important factor for the conservation of these big cats across the landscape is direct competition between lions and cattle owners.
The Greater Limpopo Lion Conservation Unit (GLLCU) is one of the continent’s last remaining lion stronghold areas. The region expands across 70,000 km2 of three countries in southern Africa: South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The largest portion of the landscape is found within Mozambique but despite the country’s importance for lions, no research had ever been undertaken in the Mozambican portion of the GLLCU to investigate lion ecology across multiple land uses or even to assess the conservation status of the local lion population.
In 2014 I decided to take on this challenge by walking 20 km a day recording all signs of wildlife and humans. I wanted to understand how lions and humans competed with one another in a shared landscape, and what precisely limited lion persistence in the region. It was invigorating exploring a new landscape, especially one that boasts such solitude – for weeks at a time it would only be myself and the bush.
During my survey, I encountered numerous types of wildlife from charging elephants to curious wild dogs, as well a variety of different people like traditional hunter-gathering communities and even armed poachers. What struck me the most was the lack of lions in the Mozambican National Parks. I found their tracks and heard them roar but over four years I only ever encountered lions a handful of times. The few lions that were there seemed to be afraid of people and avoiding us intentionally.
Our study area included Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park which is contiguous with South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The two protected areas share much of the same habitat types and wildlife species. Many animals, including lions, are found at much higher densities in Kruger and as a result some animals migrate to available habitat found in Limpopo. However, despite supporting large tracts of intact habitat, Limpopo is also densely inhabited by people and cattle.
Lions eat cattle and in retaliation cattle owners will kill the lions. While older lions may learn to avoid this dangerous behavior, younger lions, such as dispersing animals from Kruger, often make the mistake of approaching cattle areas and end up paying with their life. The study found that landscapes which are covered by more than 20% cattle grazing areas, which includes much of the Mozambican areas surveyed, are unable to support resident lions and may act as “ecological traps” to young dispersing lions.
Increasing cattle herds in Africa coupled with climate change threaten to make it even more difficult for lions in the region by further reducing land available for them to live and hunt on. Those landscapes with more than 20% cattle are not viable for lions and may witness population declines or even local extinctions. However, by utilising scientific findings such as those presented by this study, we can directly guide in situ conservation measures to become more effective in promoting human-lion coexistence and retaining landscapes for lions.
Through science, engaging with local communities and ensuring long-term funding for protected areas, lions can, and in many places do, coexist with people and their livestock. Some of Panthera’s other African programs are a great example of that. For example, our project with Kwando Carnivore Project is an example of how working with local government bodies and communities can help reverse this threshold. By improving cattle enclosures and training community members, the project is reducing retaliatory killings by cattle owners and increasing carnivore tolerance, directly safeguarding local lion populations.
The study provides a clear conservation message for wildlife managers and policy makers using a specific threshold for the first time; one that is applicable to all landscapes shared by both livestock owners and lions across Africa. Across lion range there are many more projects fostering tolerance though conflict mitigation and that we applaud those efforts and will aspire to do more ourselves. These expanding conflict-mitigation efforts in Africa, as well as Panthera’s ongoing studies on lion dispersal, will be key to creating management plans for recovering lion populations. By working together and using the best available science, we can bring lions back into these parts of Africa where they once roamed.