Lions are under serious threat, with their numbers dropping by over 40% in around 20 years. One of the main threats to them is conflict with local people, as lions and other carnivores can impose significant costs on local people, and often offer few tangible local benefits. Lion Landscapes works to facilitate human-lion coexistence by reducing the costs and increasing the benefits of large carnivore presence to people in four of the most important landscapes for lion conservation left in the world today. Here we share six of the most important factors that allow lions to coexist with people.
We are sitting in our vehicle staring at a deep green bush, the mottled leaves create shadows that may or may not be something moving. Straw-coloured grass, knotted into clumps, is the dominant ground cover, making the dense patch of bush the only area of deep shade. Less than 200 yards away, a herd of cows slowly graze their way from right to left, a herder walking behind them, alternately whistling and calling to the cows, and stopping to silently watch us. He is no doubt curious as to what we are doing. I start to wonder myself; we are responding to a lion sighting report in this area and have decided on this most likely place where the lion might be but it is hot and we have been staring at this same patch of bush for a long time. Suddenly, and almost imperceptibly the shadows coalesce into the form of a lioness. Slung low to the ground and the same yellow as the grass, she materialises to watch the cows drift past for a long minute before disappearing so completely back into her thorny refuge that we are left doubting what we saw.
Lioness in the bush watching
Approximately half of the world’s remaining lions live in unprotected rangelands with people and livestock. Wherever there is such cohabitation, there is often tension. Lions can severely impact the livelihoods of pastoral people by killing livestock, particularly the larger and more valuable species like cattle and camels. This often leads to the retaliatory killing of lions, which poses one of the biggest threats to their conservation. Other serious threats to lions are also related directly or indirectly to people; prey and habitat loss, illegal poaching, and the list goes on. People are seemingly bad news for lions and vice versa, so what makes coexistence between our species possible?
1. Conflict is not the norm. Most interactions between lions and people are uneventful - lions normally allow people and livestock to pass without incident - in the case above, the lioness was doing something critically important to successful coexistence: she was assessing the situation and making an active decision not to hunt one of the slow-moving cows grazing past her. This is somewhat surprising considering how easy a cow would be to catch - but killing cows represents a risk to lions.
Camera trap images of livestock and a lioness crossing the same place at almost the same time in the Ruaha landscape: the lioness seems to be making no attempt to attack the cows and may have waited for them to pass.
2. Fear drives behaviours that facilitate coexistence. As strange as it may seem, most lions are afraid of people most of the time. The slim man herding his cows posed no discernable threat to my eyes but lions have had hundreds of years to learn that people are dangerous. Without a healthy fear of people, lions would pull tourists out of their safari tents and ambush people venturing from their homes. They would also eat livestock - the most abundant and easy to catch prey in African rangelands - almost exclusively. But fear of people means lions attack livestock relatively rarely, and people even more rarely. Likewise, without a healthy fear of lions, people would leave their livestock to cover the landscape 24:7, whereas livestock that is tightly herded by day and confined to safe enclosures at night is not only better protected from lions and other large carnivores but also leaves space for other species to use the landscape.
3. Different activity patterns means people and lions can use the same space at different times. Lions are mostly nocturnal and people are mostly diurnal, and where they overlap this Spatio-temporal separation of activity becomes more pronounced. This means that the East African rangelands are the lionesses to use at night, and the man’s and his livestock to use during the day. Spatio-temporal separation of activities allows both people and lions to live full and active lives whilst minimising contact with the other.
Lions and people walking along the same road in Kazumba Game Ranch in the Lower Luangwa Valley in Zambia
4. Lions show preference for familiar prey. If livestock is well guarded, and killing it represents a risk for lions, then lions will choose other wild prey species wherever they are available. Successfully protecting livestock from lions through good husbandry creates a positive feedback loop where livestock stays off the menu for lions, and their preference for wild prey is reinforced.
A predator-proof boma which effectively protects livestock from large carnivores: our data show that fortifying enclosures in this way reduces attacks by around 90%
5. ‘Refuge’ habitat helps reduce negative interactions. The dense bush we were watching so intently acted as a refuge for the lioness, allowing her to remain undetected by people during the day. Likewise, people need a safe space to retreat to at night. Without their respective refuges, both lions and people would be at the mercy of the other during their vulnerable resting hours.
6. Successful coexistence is ultimately about value. At Lion Landscapes, we define successful coexistence as being where humans and wildlife occupy the same landscape without significant negative impacts on one another. In reality, wherever people and lions share the landscape, there will be some costs to both, but the most important key to successful coexistence is ensuring that related costs to the dominant species (humans) are outweighed by the benefits of coexistence. The benefits of conserving healthy, biodiverse ecosystems are becoming increasingly clear on a planetary level, but the very presence of the lioness, now invisible in her refuge of thorns, represents a risk to the life and livelihood of the man walking by. Ultimately, she must be sufficiently economically and/or culturally valuable to make allowing her presence a risk worth taking. Lion Landscapes and many similar organizations work to understand and amplify tangible value associated with lions and other wildlife. This could be cultural value (such as through our Lion Defenders programme or storybooks), community value (such as through our Community Camera Trapping) or economic value (such as through Lion Carbon). Crucially, any programmes should be based on local values and needs, and co-developed at all stages with local people.
By considering these six factors, and putting local people's needs at the heart of conservation, we can make substantial progress towards reducing the significant threat of human-carnivore conflict and moving towards easier coexistence, which could improve the lives of both people and lions.
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