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  • Writer's pictureAlayne Cotterill

Why growing grass helps save lions, and vice versa (part 2)

African Rangelands Today

Rangelands covers 43% of the African continent and are a vitally important biome for people, livestock and wildlife. This is particularly the case in East Africa, where traditional pastoralism has historically allowed a large number of wildlife species to inhabit rangeland alongside livestock - images of elegant pastoralist people accompanying herds of livestock grazing across wide grassland savannah, among herds of zebra and other wildlife species, are synonymous with east Africa. Taking Kenya as an example, approximately 75% of wildlife depends on land shared with people and livestock. However, many of East Africa’s rangelands are suffering serious degradation. Changes in land ownership and more sedentary livestock herds are resulting in weaker grass growth, bare earth, soil erosion and a breakdown in ecosystem functions, threatening livelihoods for pastoralist people and exacerbating their vulnerability to climate change (see our first Lion Friendly Livestock blog).

Livestock can graze alongside wildlife species without perceived competition when grass is plentiful.
Livestock can graze alongside wildlife species without perceived competition when grass is plentiful.

Increasing shortages of grass and water is not just bad for people and livestock. A sense of resource scarcity can make people, understandably, less tolerant of sharing them with wildlife and lead to increased human-wildlife conflict. Livestock husbandry practices that help to regenerate rangeland functions are therefore not just good for livestock and people, but also biodiversity conservation too.


Lions as a Symbol of Healthy Rangelands

Lions may appear an unlikely symbol for healthy biodiverse rangelands, but as a livestock producer, living with lions is the highest bar when it comes to commitment to wildlife conservation. If you can coexist with lions, you can coexist with all large carnivores and other wildlife. In fact you probably already do - lion populations won't thrive without healthy prey, which won't thrive without healthy habitat, which in turn needs good soil. The presence of lions symbolises that there is enough grass and water to share, and a willingness to share it with lion prey, but it also symbolises a willingness to manage the inherent risks associated with the presence of wildlife. Lions are the hardest species for livestock producers to coexist with - they are big, come in groups, predate on the largest and most valuable livestock and can threaten human life. Where lions are a significant cost to people, people will normally kill lions. The presence of a healthy population of lions, therefore, indicates that livestock predation, and the retaliatory killing of lions in response, is being minimised, which is good for people and lions. Husbandry practices that stop lion predation will mostly do the same for other large carnivore species, so lions can act as an umbrella species for well managed conflict between people and other carnivores too.


Overall, a healthy population of an apex carnivore like the African lion coexisting with a thriving livestock economy is a symbol of the very highest level of conservation success, and a healthy rangeland capable of supporting people, livestock and wildlife into the future.

The presence of a relaxed and breeding population of lions on rangeland in Laikipia, Kenya indicates plentiful wild prey and well managed human-carnivore conflict.
The presence of a relaxed and breeding population of lions on rangeland in Laikipia, Kenya indicates plentiful wild prey and well managed human-carnivore conflict.

Lion Friendly Livestock Certification adds Value to Wildlife Presence

Even when livestock predation is minimised, it can rarely be reduced to zero, and finding ways to make the conservation of lions and other wildlife valuable to pastoralist people is crucial to their survival on land shared with people and livestock. Conservation certification for agricultural products is one way of making wildlife presence, and wildlife friendly practices, more valuable. Goods produced in a way that promotes wildlife presence can command premium prices, or gain a competitive advantage over goods produced in a way that damages nature. Bird Friendly Coffee and Elephant Friendly Tea are two better known examples. There are also a growing number of more generic ‘conservation’ standards. All of these are a step in the right direction - they demonstrate that conservation practices can be more profitable than practices that damage nature. However, they can also be confusing, and greenwashing is an ever present concern for buyers. Transparency is therefore important in showing what a given certification means for nature, producers and buyers.


Here we want to introduce the concept of Lion Friendly Livestock. This is a certification that uses lions, the apex carnivore, as a flagship species for livestock production on healthy, biodiverse African rangelands. To reach Lion Friendly standards, a livestock producer must support healthy rangeland from the soil all the way up to the biggest and most voracious carnivore species. Being Lion Friendly certified is not easy but doing what it takes to make sure lions can thrive alongside livestock can be what is best for grass production in African rangelands, and therefore what is best for livestock producers too.


Lion Friendly Livestock Criteria

Lion Friendly Livestock criteria are designed to be scaled across different rangelands with different human and environmental characteristics. Best practices used may vary from one habitat type to another or from one region to another, and can reflect local traditional practices. They may also vary over time as knowledge grows or as properties reach different stages of regeneration. The Lion Friendly Livestock programme is therefore not prescriptive over rangeland management and predator proofing practices, but rather helps land owners and managers to measure the outcomes of the practices used, informing a process of adaptive management. Although not prescriptive, the Lion Friendly Livestock programme works in partnership with specialists who can provide guidance on current best practices, giving livestock owners the critical tools and knowledge they need to affect a profound and long-lasting improvement in the ability of their rangeland to support livestock, people and wider biodiversity.


Lion Friendly Livestock criteria fall into 6 simple groups or subsets, which we broadly describe below. The criteria underpinning these are designed to stand alone or be bolted on as the wildlife conservation part of an Ecological Outcomes Verification (EOV) framework, where land managers have the capacity to measure soil health, biodiversity and ecosystem function.


Livestock and people distribution on the landscape (Space)

In our first Lion Friendly Livestock blog we described how holistic grazing practices that concentrate livestock activity, and ensure that large areas of rangeland are allowed to rest from the presence of livestock herds and accompanying people, optimise grass production, healthy soils and overall rangeland health. Such practices also allow lions and other species that are sensitive to human presence the space they need to forage, rest and raise young without disturbance. The first subsection of criteria for being Lion Friendly therefore measures and tracks the percentage of the rangeland that is used by livestock herds on any given day, and as a result, the percentage left undisturbed. Standards are set at levels that are not only best for grass, but large carnivores and other species too.


Prey abundance, distribution and richness (Prey)

Another key factor for large carnivore survival, and biodiversity conservation in general, is the number of different species (richness) and the number of animals of each wildlife species (abundance) on the landscape. It is also important how much of the landscape is used by any particular species (distribution). Having plenty of wild prey available for large carnivores to eat is a key part of stopping them predating on livestock. To be Lion Friendly the majority of the property must be utilised by wildlife. In the second subsection of Lion Friendly criteria, abundance, distribution and richness of herbivore species is measured absolutely and as a trend over time. Absolute numbers may vary with natural events beyond the control of land managers e.g. drought, but trends over time will reveal whether the practices in use are having positive or negative impacts on biodiversity conservation. In order to allow for spatial and temporal differences in rangeland productivity, the percentage of the overall weight of animals (biomass) comprised of wildlife species is also reported compared to that of livestock. A drop in wildlife biomass and a corresponding increase in livestock biomass would indicate practices that are unsustainable in terms of biodiversity, whereas an increase in both wildlife and livestock biomass might indicate an improvement in overall rangeland productivity.

A herd of impala in a bushier area of rangeland.
A herd of impala in a bushier area of rangeland.

Carnivore abundance, distribution and richness (Presence)

In order to be Lion Friendly, a property must form part of the contiguous range of a viable population of wild lions preventing properties claiming to be Lion Friendly but artificially ‘farming’ lions that are not part of the wild population. As with the herbivore species above, the abundance, distribution and richness of large carnivore species are measured and reported as absolute numbers and as trends built over time, as indicators of how the livestock husbandry practices in use are impacting carnivore conservation. As with herbivore species, the standards are set so that the majority of the property must be available for use by large carnivores, preventing properties claiming to be Lion Friendly but only having lions in a small area. Additionally, large carnivore populations must be stable or increasing over time.

Being part of a contiguous viable population of wild lions is necessary for Lion Friendly Livestock certification.
Being part of a contiguous viable population of wild lions is necessary for Lion Friendly Livestock certification.

Sustainable management of human-carnivore conflict (Tolerance)

Large carnivores can only coexist alongside viable livestock production if the losses of livestock to predation, and the retaliatory killing of large carnivores as a result, are sustainable. Some livestock will be killed by large carnivores, and the occasional removal of a large carnivore may be necessary but must follow best practices for the region in order to meet Lion Friendly standards. Standards are set such that the losses of livestock to predation are financially sustainable for the producer, and any lethal control of large carnivores as a result does not have a negative impact on large carnivore numbers and distribution. Livestock practices that prevent predation i.e. keeping livestock in guarded bomas at night and tightly herded during the day, can also promote grass growth and soil health when properly moved around the landscape as part of a holistic grazing programme.


Habitat refugia (Refuge)

When sharing the landscape with people and livestock, lions and most other large carnivores need areas of refuge habitat i.e. patches of habitat that people and livestock are unlikely to enter due to the terrain being too rough or the vegetation being too thick. These patches of refugia are crucial in allowing lions to remain hidden and undisturbed when people and livestock are active in the area. This is particularly important for carnivores that have young cubs or pups but the habitat refugia, and heterogeneity in habitat it creates, is also beneficial to many other species. Lion Friendly properties must therefore have sufficient amounts of habitat refugia.

Viable populations of wild lions require large connected landscapes.
Viable populations of wild lions require large connected landscapes.

Landscape connectivity (Scale)

Lions are a wide ranging species, requiring large contiguous areas of land to support viable populations in the wild. A Lion Friendly Livestock producer must be connected to other areas of land that are suitable for lion in order to provide the area needed. Fences between suitable wildlife land must be permeable to lions and other wildlife. Encouraging neighbours to work together to manage the rangeland ecosystem as a wider whole, reduces the risk of the landscape becoming fragmented and is again better for wildlife and for people and livestock.

A map showing GPS data from collared lions moving freely between properties in Laikipia, Kenya.
A map showing GPS data from collared lions moving freely between properties in Laikipia, Kenya.

Overall, giving lions the space, prey, tolerance, refuge and connectivity they need to persist will support wider biodiversity conservation and incentivise healthy rangeland practices that improve grass growth and soil health. Healthy functioning rangelands also sequester more carbon, and better provide clean water. Lion Friendly is therefore also biodiversity friendly, soil friendly and climate friendly. This should make Lion Friendly Livestock ultimately better for people too.


Note. The Lion Friendly criteria and standards are co-developed with local livestock producers in Laikipia, Kenya. They will be tested over the following 12 months on properties that are known to have healthy populations of lions and other large carnivores in order to fine tune where the standards should lie in order to ensure rangeland management that supports people, livestock, lions and wider biodiversity conservation. We will publish the detailed criteria and standards as soon as they are fully tested.

 

We would like to thank the following donors, who have enabled the development of the Lion Friendly Livestock programme: The Darwin Initiative, Lion Recovery Fund, Tusk Trust and The Nature Conservancy. We would also like to thank our partners in this programme, Loisaba Conservancy, Borana Conservancy, True Range and Kyran Kunkel.

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