A lion’s tale: Reporting from the front lines of lion conservation.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know.

There are fewer wild lions remaining in the world than rhinos.

Yes, it’s true. For all the recent campaigns highlighting the plight of the rhino — and rightly so — one of the most iconic species known to humankind is on the brink.

That seems hard to believe, as the lion is the one animal somebody thinks of — and expects to see — when going to the zoo.

Numbers don’t lie however. Hardly anyone familiar with the impact of overpopulation and stresses on the environment in the post-industrial age will be surprised to learn that Africa’s lion population has crashed 90% in just the past 75 years.

It’s hard to quantify that figure in real terms, though.

A more telling number is that there are roughly 30,000 rhinos left in the wild, according to recent surveys. (These numbers are especially reliable today because recent media attention  over the illegal killing of rhinos for their horns has prompted a wide range of population surveys. Rhinos are relatively easy to count, too, as they can be spotted from the air, are diurnal and favour open spaces over dense bush.)

Lions, on the other hand, number some 20,000. Little more than a century ago, there were more than 200,000. Lions are extinct today in 26 African countries.

©National Geographic/Natural History Film Unit

©National Geographic/Natural History Film Unit

These figures come from wildlife biologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Thandiwe (Thandi) Mweetwa, but have been confirmed by any number of peer-reviewed scientific surveys. We tend to think there are more lions than there really are because they’re social animals. They live in large family groups, so when you see one lion in the wild, chances are you will see several of them together, whether it’s a male coalition, a lone lioness with newborn cubs, or a full-on pride. That gives the illusion that they’re plentiful, when in fact the evidence shows they’re anything but.

Mweetwa, Zambian-born and educated at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (veterinary medicine) and University of Arizona in Tucson (resources conservation), is a senior wildlife biologist with the Zambian Carnivore Project.

When one thinks of African game parks, one naturally thinks of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara in East Africa, Kruger National Park in South Africa or even Etosha in Namibia, but Zambia is home to several of the less trammelled and most pristine wilderness areas on the entire continent.

2. Thandi NatGeo field image.png

Mweetwa is based in the Luangwa River Valley — South Luangwa National Park rests on one of the main tributaries to the Zambezi River, which feeds into Victoria Falls. Luangwa’s ecosystem is every bit as detailed and complex as anything in Serengeti, but the fact that there so few tourist visitors, relative to its more famous cousins in Kenya and Tanzania, makes Luangwa an ideal test lab for biological field studies.

Mweetwa was one of a handful of scientists, nature photographers and program producers who appeared at the semi-annual gathering of the TV Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif.this past summer  — I’m an active member, owing to my regular columns for the New Jersey-based site TVWorthWatching.com — to promote NatGeo Wild’s eighth annual Big Cat Week, designed to raise awareness of, and promote interest in, National Geographic’s self-explanatory Big Cat Initiative. Among its other programs, the Big Cat Initiative helps raise funds for big cat conservation; Mweetwa’s work is supported in part by a grant from National Geographic. 

Mweetwa was just 12 when she moved from a small town in southern Zambia to the rural north. Her parents had died within two years of each other; her uncle agreed to take her in, in her mother’s home village of Mfuwe in Zambia’s far north. She had seen wildlife documentaries on the tiny, 12-inch family TV set as a young child growing up in the south, but now she found herself living in a modest red-brick house with no running water or electricity, let alone a TV. She was exposed on a daily basis to the wildlife she had only seen in pictures, though, and it wasn’t long before she developed an interest in the ubiqitous baboons, vervet monkeys, bushbuck, buffalo and puku antelope that frequented the mango groves surrounding the village. That led to a growing curiosity about the shadowy predators one often hears about but rarely sees — the leopard, a creature of the night; African wild dogs, tireless hunters during the day; and, at the top of the food chain, the lion.

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“It was the documentaries,” Mweetwa explained, when asked what first piqued her interest in lions. The irony that her field work is now supported by National Geographic’s network of international TV channels is not lost on her.

“We had a black-and-white TV set, and even then there was no colour,” she said. “But these animals just spoke to me at a certain level that I felt, okay, maybe I should do something to protexct them in the wild. With big cats in partitcular, I was completely sold well I saw my very first lion at the age of, possibly, 21 or 22, when I heard them roar, like, in broad daylight. It was nothing I had ever experienced before, and it completely sold me.”

Today, Mweetwa is a senior ecologist and community educator with the Zambian Carnivore Programme. Her work revolves around poplation dynamics and threwats to the survival of lions and other carnivores in eastern Zambia. She believes the key to any species’ survival is getting local communities involved and convincing area residents to support wildlife conservation and environmental awareness programs. 

Mweetwa’s work gained new attention this past week, thanks to her National Geographic video in which she shows that female lions in a pride often have cubs at the same time, to facilitate group parenting, in which a group of new mothers raise each other’s offspring alongisde their own cubs. 

The situation facing lions is serious, Mweetwa says.

(L-R) Steve Winter, Bob Poole, Thandiwe Mweetwa, Brad Bestelink and Andy Crawford. ©NatGeo Wild

(L-R) Steve Winter, Bob Poole, Thandiwe Mweetwa, Brad Bestelink and Andy Crawford. ©NatGeo Wild

Climate change is, marked by longer and more frequent dorughts, has led to significant human-wildlife conflict in Kenya and Tanzania especially, as livestock herders push their goats and cattle inside park boundaries, in an effort to find water and food, while hungry lions leave park boundaries and cause mayhem. In Zambia, where Mweetwa works, and throughout southern Africa, lions are being hunted for the bushmeat trade, and for ritual charms and would-be cures used in traditional medicine.

Mweetwa is mindful that relatively few travellers from the West will ever visit Africa’s wilderness areas, let alone see a lion in the wild.

That’s where National Geographic’s films and magazine come in. Fantastic beasts and where to find them, and all that.

“It’s important to show people really nice footage of these animals that will make them go, ‘Ohhh, this is really cool,’” Mweetwa explained. “A lot of times people have this  perception that these animals cause more problems than they actually do. It’s difficult living with lions, as you can imagine. But (where I live), there’s too much negative perception, lions being blamed for things they maybe didn’t do. So programming like Savage Kingdom, for instance, is very important in getting people to realize that these are magnificent beasts, and they’re worth keeping in the landscape.”