Poisoning – a severe threat for Africa’s lion populations

Kalahari lions feeding at a Wildebeest carcass - Photograph by Bee Lingg
Lions feeding at a carcass – Photograph Bee Lingg

Poisoning means a severe threat to the survival of wild lions as humans encroach on their available habitat. Poison has crippling effects on the lives of humans, animals and the environment for long periods.

Michael Schwartz wrote for National Geographic: “The sad reality is that people living near lions don’t have the luxury of simply avoiding them. So, they naturally take matters into their own hands, which unfortunately often ends up with not one, but multiple dead lions, especially when inexpensive poison is involved.”

“Human poverty and wildlife act like oil and water. They are mostly incompatible and many tragic poisoning events contribute to wildlife loss in Africa. Cheap poison, available at every corner shop, is used in retaliation against the big cats, but also for unsustainable bushmeat poaching in support of starving families.”

Carbofuran is one of the most toxic pesticides, it is often used as a poison in Africa. For people living with their herds in the African bush, predators mean a daily hazard, while for lions, on the other side, easy meals can be deadly. Both parties living in the same area are a continued threat to each other.

Dismembered Lion skin, bones removed. Head to be used for muti.
Skin of a poisoned lion – Image Credit @ Rae Kokes

Another widely available poison is Aldicarb, the active substance in the pesticide Temik. Temik was used in one of the most recent incidents when 11 lions were killed by local herdsmen in Uganda’s most famous Queen Elisabeth National Park.

Aldicarb is one of the most widely used pesticides internationally and is also one of the most environmentally toxic. Aldicarb poisoning from agricultural water runoff has led to the destruction of healthy ecosystems and the irreversible poisoning of fertile agricultural land.” Many more pesticides and other poisons such as strychnine and cyanide are “on hand”.

A terrific incident happened in 2016 at the Greater Limpopo National Park. Two lions, 51 vultures, three fish eagles and some more birds were poisoned, just for the bones, heads and paws of the lions.

Since the trade with lion bones has picked up high speed in recent years, poison is often used to kill lions for their bones. While fencing off grazing areas and reinforcing cattle bomas might work in some areas for some time, population numbers are on the rise in Africa. Humans encroach even the last protected areas in an ever similar pattern. Tensions are growing between humans and predators, while grazing areas are shrinking.

Poisoned young lion at the Maasai Mara – Image Credit @ Charlie Hamilton James

From the August 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine: “The edges of all protected areas have become more dangerous for wildlife, but nowhere is the threat to large, highly mobile animals more obvious than in the eastern part of the Mara region. Outside the reserve, ranch livestock herds have been expanding and open land shrinking, prompting Maasai pastoralists to drive more and more cattle into the reserve to graze, especially during the dry season or times of drought.”

How can the problem be fixed? While some conservationists plead for a general fencing of parks and reserves, others research and implement the use of technology.

The independent lion conservation organization Lion Landscapes develops holistic programs in Kenya and Zambia that includes the local stakeholders, authorities, conservancies, other NGO’s and also the most advanced collaring and tracking technology.

The Lion Guardians began to work more than 10 years ago with five Maasai Guardians in one small area within the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem. In 2018, there are Lion Guardians-based projects successfully running in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. The guardians find lost herders, reinforce bomas, recover lost livestock and stop lion hunts. The conservation program is based on evidence-based strategies, and the integration of social and biological sciences, including traditional and indigenous knowledge.

The issue of wildlife poisoning needs to be urgently addressed across Africa. The unrestricted access to pesticides and poisons must be restricted immediately through tighter controls on the distribution. The solution to this problem will not come from one project, one team or one organization. Transnational strategies are needed.

Here is a comprehensive list of organisations that work in the field on solutions for this problems.