No fences needed: new research shows humans and lions can coexist

Published: 23 March 2016

New Institute research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology describes how humans and lions can coexist through the creation of community conservancies. These are privately protected areas that engage local people in conservation and ecotourism. Conservancies can help stem the unrelenting loss of lions, whose population has been in decline across Africa, and pose a viable solution to an old problem.

Lions among herds of cattle © Ingela Janssen, University of Minnesota.

Can humans and lions live together? This is the question that Institute researchers have been able to answer with a categorical ‘yes’.

Humans and lions can coexist through the creation of community conservancies – privately protected areas that engage local people in conservation and ecotourism. These conservancies can help stem the unrelenting loss of lions, whose population has been in decline across Africa, and pose a viable solution to an old problem.

Dr Grant Hopcraft and Sara Blackburn discuss their research

The paper, by researchers from the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, the conservation group Living With Lions and the University of Hohenheim’s Biostatistics Unit, shows that lion populations have increased substantially within Kenya’s Masai Mara ecosystem over the last decade, and that the creation of community conservancies, which distributes tourism income to local people, has had the greatest impact on lion survival.

How people can live next to lions without killing them— Dr Grant Hopcraft & Sara Blackburn discuss their work in The Conversation UK

The data, published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology, demonstrate that the financial benefits of conservancy membership can help protect the lion population, and even allow it to grow, by changing the local attitudes towards wildlife.

Lions are often killed in retaliation for causing significant costs to rural people through attacks on their livestock. Until now, the benefit of conservancies for protecting large carnivores has been largely unknown.

Sara Blackburn, lead author of the paper, tracked lion prides for five years within Kenya’s Masai Mara region, on the northern side of the Serengeti National Park, building up a database of observations using the lions’ whisker spot patterns to identity individuals over time.

She said: “We know that lion populations are declining right across Africa, but moratoriums on trophy hunting don’t prevent local people from killing lions, and fences stifle ecosystems. So we looked at the question ‘Are there any scenarios in which lions can live alongside people and their livestock?’”

There has been a dramatic decline in lion populations in nearly all the areas where lions and people overlap, indicating that habitat fragmentation and human wildlife conflict has been a major driver behind this loss. However, the researchers found that in the Masai Mara conservancies, the opposite effect was occurring – a significant increase in lion survival.

Conservancy membership provides households with financial benefits from wildlife tourism and engenders an attitude of coexistence with wildlife. The net effect is that people become more tolerant of lions because they attract tourists and bring an alternative source of income to landowners.

Dr Grant Hopcraft, corresponding author on the paper said: “The most important finding in this study is that community conservancies are a viable way to protect wildlife and pose an alternative solution to building fences. If we are concerned about the population of lions, we need to let the people who actually live with the lions benefit from their existence.”

The study illustrates that community conservancies are a good strategy for the future protection of lion populations and provides a practical solution to the problem, especially in areas where the expense of fencing is not a realistic option.

Dr Laurence Frank, director of Living With Lions, adds: “Due to rapid human population growth, wildlife has been in free-fall across most of Africa. Only local people can reverse the downward spiral, and this study shows that profits from tourism can motivate rural people to tolerate rather than eliminate wild animals.”

The research illustrates a very positive finding – community conservation allows people to coexist with wildlife by bringing benefits, not costs, to the people who live alongside it. National wildlife policies should therefore focus on developing opportunities, rights and responsibilities for wildlife conservation outside parks and reserves for private landholders and communities.

This study, ‘Can predators persist in community-based conservancies? Human-wildlife conflict, benefit sharing and the survival of lions in pastoralist wildlife regions’ was published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. It was conducted as part of Living With Lions’ Mara Predator Project, and funded by the Banovich Wildscapes Foundation, Panthera, The Wildlife Conservation Society, Paul Tudor Jones Family Foundation, Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellowship, British Ecological Society, German Research Foundation, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

First published: 23 March 2016