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Endangered Species: The African lion

 © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic

By Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter
Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 8:10 PM

Endangered Species is a new series at theweathernetwork.com. We're taking an in-depth look at our changing planet and how it is affecting plants, mammals, reptiles and insects. This week, we're travelling to Africa to learn about the lion, a majestic - and vulnerable - species.

The African lion is not an endangered species, but if animal activists had their way, it would be.

The king of the jungle is at risk of becoming a mere footnote in the pages of history. Currently listed as "vulnerable" by the IUCN, it is afforded no protection against habitat decline sport hunting.  As a result, the population is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Consider this:

  • Two-thousand years ago, more than a million lions roamed Africa. Today, only about 30,000 remain. 
  • In the last five decades nearly 75% of the savannahs that lions call home have vanished, mostly due to human expansion.
  • The remaining 25% of the savannahs have been rendered uninhabitable due to deforestation.
  • Today, most African lions reside in protected areas, but they still fall victim to trophy hunting. An estimated 665 lions are hunted and exported each year. 

Though not the fastest cats, lions can reach an impressive top speed of 80 kph. Their roar echoes across the savannahs, audible from a distance of 8 kilometres. These large cats exhibit distinctly feline behaviour: They sleep for up to 20 hours a day and, like their domestic cousins, have demonstrated an affinity towards cardboard boxes.

While their day vision is similar to that of a human's, a reflective layer of tissue at the back of the eye allows them to see eight times better than man at night.


Lions aren't the only big cats that need help. 

Tigers, cheetahs, leopards and jaguars, among others are also quickly disappearing -- all victims of habitat loss, sport hunting and human activity.

In response to this critical situation, the National Geographic Society has launched the Big Cats Initiative. The program supports conservation, education, and economic incentive efforts while raising global awareness.

“We no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to big cats,” says Dereck Joubert, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and chair of the program. “They are in such a downward spiral that if we hesitate now, we will be responsible for extinctions across the globe. If there was ever a time to take action, it is now."

 © Michael Nichols/National Geographic

© Michael Nichols/National Geographic


  • Donate to National Geographic's Big Cat Foundation (and keep up-to-date by signing up for Big Cats Initiative updates)
  • Start, or sign, a petition to have African lions listed as an endangered species.

You can learn more about the incredible lives of lions in the August edition of National Geographic. The Short, Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion takes an in-depth look at the life of a gorgeous young male named C-Boy. The following is an excerpt from the profile; the full piece can be read online at National Geographic.

They say that cats have nine lives, but they don’t say that about the Serengeti lion. Life is hard and precarious on this unforgiving landscape, and dead is dead. For the greatest of African predators as well as for their prey, life spans tend to be short, more often terminating abruptly than in graceful decline. An adult male lion, if he’s lucky and durable, might attain the advanced age of 12 in the wild. Adult females can live longer, even to 19. Life expectancy at birth is much lower, for any lion, if you consider the high mortality among cubs, half of which die before age two. But surviving to adulthood is no guarantee of a peaceful demise. For a certain young male, black-maned and robust, known to researchers as C-Boy, the end seemed to have arrived on the morning of August 17, 2009. 

A Swedish woman named Ingela Jansson, working as a field assistant on a long-term lion study, was there to see it. She knew C-Boy from previous encounters; in fact, she had named him. (By her recollection, she had “boringly” labeled a trio of new lions alphabetically as A-Boy, B-Boy, and C-Boy.) Now he was four or five years old, just entering his prime. She sat in a Land Rover, 30 feet away, while three other males ganged up on C-Boy and tried to kill him. His struggle to survive against those daunting odds, dramatic in itself, reflected a larger truth about the Serengeti lion: Continual risk of death, even more than the ability to cause it, is what shapes the social behavior of this ferocious but ever jeopardized animal. 

Read more.

 Next Wednesday, we're heading to the Arctic Circle to learn about another vulnerable species, the polar bear.

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