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Into the lions' den

Into the lions' den
19 May
Changing temperatures in East Africa are set to upset a delicate balance between wild lions and cattle herders

As growing human populations demand grazing space for livestock, Africa’s now less than 20,000 wild lions find themselves constantly competing for space with the continent’s 165 million-strong domestic cattle.

One significant factor keeping the two sides apart is the presence of tsetse flies. The parasite causes bovine trypanosomosis in cattle, killing as many as three million animals every year (the human strain is also responsible for causing up to 70,000 cases of ‘sleeping sickness’ annually). Since cattle herders know to avoid areas where tsetse flies are widespread, these locations often act as lion strongholds, ensuring human-wildlife conflict is kept relatively low.

Inevitably, climate change is set to intervene. Researchers at Boise State University in Idaho are predicting that the changing of temperatures across East Africa means the tsetse fly range will likely expand by an additional 1,900,000 sq km by 2050 – slightly larger than the size of Alaska – driving out people and livestock in the process.

Crucially, the fly range is estimated to shrink in other areas by between 520,000 sq km and 714,000 sq km, inviting herders into current lion habitats. Consequentially, between 3,400 and 5,900 lions would find themselves in conflict with humans and their desire to graze cattle, according to models created by the research team.

‘Lion-cattle conflict is one of the main drivers of the rapid decline in lion numbers in Africa,’ says Neil Carter, a human-environment systems researcher at Boise State. ‘As such, we would expect that lions sharing more landscapes with people and their cattle would be detrimental to both. Having said that, there are ways to mitigate the negative interactions between lions and cattle.’

Such mitigations include promoting the use of protective reinforced ‘bomas’ (enclosures) for cattle being grazed in lion areas, designing effective wildlife corridors to ensure lion mobility between fractured habitats, and embracing rangeland management schemes where the value of lions for non-invasive industries such as tourism is made clear to all relevant actors, including local cattle herders.

This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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