By Daniel T Cross
Lions across Africa have seen their habitats shrink over the years, but not in the Balule Nature Reserve, a protected area that forms part of the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Here, on an area the size of Belgium, lions can roam freely across vast spaces undeterred by fences.
In fact, the lions can travel so widely that experts who keep tabs on then need to resort to ruses like leaving fresh kills as bait to lure the lions into an area so they can be counted.
“Sometimes they’ve eaten. If they’re full, they don’t come,” observes Ian Nowak, head warden at the Balule Nature Reserve. “Especially the males, they’re lazy as hell,” he quips.
Balule is a conservationist success story on a continent where the fortunes of Africa’s iconic lions have steadily declined over the past decades as many of their roaming grounds have been turned into farmlands and urban settlements. Trophy hunting and rampant poaching have also taken their toll on the majestic predators.
“African lions once roamed most of Africa and parts of Asia and Europe. But the species has disappeared from 94 percent of its historic range and can only be found today in parts of sub-Saharan Africa,” National Geographic explains. “These lions mainly stick to the grasslands, scrub, or open woodlands where they can more easily hunt their prey, but they can live in most habitats aside from tropical rainforests and deserts.”
At the turn of this century Balule, too, was mostly farmland with very few lions. Yet thanks to stepped-up conservation measures that have seen local farmlands converted into wild open spaces there were 156 lions in the reserve, according to the latest census from last year.
“Lions are doing incredibly well, mainly because there’s a large enough space to operate,” Nowak says.
Tourists are allowed to visit the area and see the lions from up close during guided safaris. This helps pay for local conservation initiatives for African lions, which are classified as critically endangered and have already been declared extinct in 26 African nations where they once roamed.
“Though lions still exist in 28 African countries and one Asian country [India], only six protected area complexes are known to support more than 1,000 lions. Thankfully there they remain safe for the foreseeable future, but in about 60 other protected areas the situation is far less secure,” the conservationist group Panthera notes.
Encouragingly, there are a number of conservation projects in Africa designed to protect the remaining populations of the continent’s lions in their natural habitats. These include working with local people to ensure that they won’t retaliate against lions that prey on their livestock by shooting or poisoning them.
“Retaliation is the primary reason people kill this big cat. We work with communities to help them realize the big cat’s value and to help them protect their families and livestock from carnivore predation,” says the African Wildlife Foundation, which operates in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park, where a tenth of the world’s wild lions live.
“Since 2012, AWF has been working with Ruaha’s communities to build livestock enclosures to protect livestock from predation, and, in turn, protect big cats and other carnivores from conflict with humans. In addition, Ruaha Carnivore Project provides community benefits to villages that demonstrate success in living peacefully with carnivores,” the conservationist group adds.