Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Kings of the jungle fight for survival

Tourists take photos as a lion rests in the expansive Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Photo/FILE

Tourists take photos as a lion rests in the expansive Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Photo/FILE 

By KIBIWOTT KOROSS

They may be kings of the jungle but now conservationists say lions in some of Kenya’s most scenic parks are reduced to fighting for their lives. Africa’s wild lion population is in trouble. And their population could disappear in the next 20 years because of climate change, habitat destruction, disease and conflict with humans.

Scientists do not know how many lions there were a few decades ago, but today’s estimate of fewer than 23,000 on the entire continent is much less than previously thought. Lions and other large predators like hyenas and leopards are killed by livestock owners for preying on cows, sheep, and goats.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), an estimated 100 lions die each year, which could see the prized animal out of sight in the next 20 years, given that their current population in Kenyan parks stands at not more than 2,000.

Lions are one of the famed "big five" along with elephants, buffaloes, leopards and rhinos that are the major tourist attraction in Kenya’s game parks. According to an international British journal Mother Nature, the lion, elephant, black rhino, cheetah and tiger are the most endangered animals and are on the verge of extinction.

“The situation is bad. We are losing about 100 lions each year and from our statistics, we have realised that in the last seven years; the population of the lions has dropped from 2,700 in 2002, to some 2,000,” says the director in a statement.

And to try and save the lions, KWS said it has fitted them with tracking devices to monitor their movement and better understand the human-lion conflict. This is a pilot process in the southern Amboseli ecosystem where according to KWS, some 35 lions have been found.

The Amboseli Lion Project is a joint effort between KWS and the Leiden University, Netherlands under a Memorandum of Understanding between the two institutions. The five collared lions in the project include three females and two males.

In the Maasai Mara, there are 825 lions. Pastoralists and farmers have been accused of killing lions by lacing chemicals on carcasses of dead animals which the lions then come and eat.

Tsavo has 675 lions while Laikipia has 230, Isiolo/Samburu 100, Northern Kenya 100, Meru 40 and Nairobi 25.

According to conservationists, a pesticide marketed under the trade name furadan, that is manufactured by Philadelphia-based Farm Machinery and Chemicals (FMC), is responsible for the deaths of dozens of lions, hundreds of vultures and other animals in Kenya’s wildlife sanctuaries.

In early September, one lion, a number of hyenas and 35 vultures are reported to have died at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve from retaliatory poisoning. The poison, suspected to be furadan, was found from a cow's carcass.

This poisoning was confirmed by the Kenya Wildlife Service, which said that a suspect has been arrested and was assisting with investigations. According to the KWS senior scientist, Dr Dominic Mijele, the carcass had a pinkish colouration on the bones indicating that a heavy dose of the substance was used.

Over the past six years, 62 lions have been killed through poisoning. In 2004, 187 vultures died after feasting on a carcass that had been laced with furadan on the Athi-Kapiti plains adjoining the Nairobi National Park.

And a month later, a deadly agricultural pesticide — carbofuran — introduced by a US manufacturer is still being sold despite reports that it has caused wildlife deaths in various locations in Kenya.

Younger generation

According to Wildlife and Forestry minister Dr Noah Wekesa, Kenya without wild lions would be a tragedy. “In order to make room for the lions, we must also make sure there is space for them in our hearts and that is exactly what Pride of Kenya encourages us to do,” he says.

Director of KWS Dr Julius Kipng’etich says Kenya would lose her major foreign exchange earner should the lions disappear. The director says KWS has made concerted efforts to spearhead the conservation of the endangered animals with other partners.

Through a project, dubbed “Pride of Kenya”, coordinated by the Born Free Foundation in consultation with Wild Art, 50 life-size lion sculptures will be distributed alongside information about the king of the jungle.

The campaign will be used to raise public awareness about the uncertain future of the lions and to engage people in efforts to help raise funds for the conservation of the lion. Nation Media Group, Kenya Data Networks (KDN), Born Free and other sponsors have helped in the distribution of the 50 ‘lions’ to Nairobi and they are now on display.

Conservation messages

Nation Media Group will pass conservation messages through advertisements, competitions on radio and pupils’ painting competitions through the weekly children’s magazine, Young Nation.

KDN, a leading network operator in East Africa, is supporting Pride of Kenya by developing and hosting the website www.prideofkenya.co.ke and has sponsored the display of two lions.

“We took the initiative not only to sensitise the community about the plight of the lions but also to draw attention to conservation at large” says KDN chief marketing officer Mr Vincent Wangombe.

Through the initiative, free public art displays in form of lion sculptures will be placed strategically outside city buildings to create awareness on conservation of the big cat in Kenya. They will later be brought together for one last time as part of a gala auction to be held at the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters.

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