Since the death of Cecil the lion at the hands of an American hunter, the issue of the best way to conserve increasingly threatened lion populations has become ever more controversial, says Professor Keith Somerville, whose new book, ‘Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence’, is published this month. 

The lion, in the iconography and imagination of humans, is one of the most charismatic species, and in the last four years, it has gained a greater prominence in the media. A recent example is a Times piece that simply repeated a report by Campaign to Ban Trophy Hunting. This latest attempt by celebrities and animal rights groups to label trophy hunting as a major threat to the existence of lions, provokes conservationists and specialists on the subject, myself included, to point out that this approach is simplistic, misleading and may actually harm the species they want to protect.

Humans and lionsThe news and social media response to Cecil’s death prompted me to carry out an in-depth study of how the story was covered. I found that stories were often wildly inaccurate about the facts of the case, misrepresented lion pride behaviour and presented animal rights activists as unbiased conservation experts – and too often the real experts were not given a voice.

During my study, I interviewed and got to learn about the scientifically backed approach to lion conservation of Dr David Macdonald, director of University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation research Unit (WildCRU). He encouraged me to go further in the history and evolving nature of human-lion relations to try to identify the themes and the core factors in the debates over the prospects for the species, the anthropogenic (human) threats to lion survival and the relationship, whether positive or negative, between trophy hunting and lion conservation.

The result is Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, my latest book on human-wildlife relationships, which seeks to trace the genesis and evolution of human fear of fascination with, worship and then persecution of lions from the Pleistocene to the present.


Early humans and lions evolved almost in parallel and there was an element of co-evolution. Fossil evidence suggests that interactions with the first early lion species occurred in East Africa 3.5 ma – based on Mary Leakey’s discovery of a jawbone of a lion-like felid at Laetoli in Tanzania near to footprints of human-like hominins.

Hominids (consisting of all modern and extinct great apes, modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans plus their immediate ancestors) and Hominins (modern humans, extinct human species and our immediate ancestors) evolved outside the dense forest of central Africa as climate and vegetation change formed areas of open woodland and savannas. The ancestors of modern lions are very likely to have preyed on these human ancestors. As humans developed in strength, intelligence and social organisation, they became hunters scavenging lions for food, killing them to protect themselves and competing with them and other carnivores for prey. This led to their decline or disappearance in many areas of their historical range.

Lions survived in the Middle East, North Africa and West Asia for longer, only to disappear by the early decades of the 20th century. That left the sub-Saharan African population and the small remnant Indian population, Panthera leo persica, part of the Panthera leo sub-species that inhabits areas of Central and West Africa and used to inhabit North Africa. The Indian population, is found in and around the Gir Forest, numbers somewhere around 600 and has expanded since the early 20th century due to conservation efforts and the tolerance of the dairy farming Maldhari community that, despite predation on livestock, coexist surprisingly peacefully with the lions.

Humans and lionsBased on the evolving relationship sketched above, the book places lion conservation and the relationship between people and lions in both the historical context and that of the contemporary politics of conservation in Africa. It examines lions threatened in the wild, and looks at the different approaches to their conservation over time and in the present.

Lion numbers falling. What is to blame?

What is clear is that lion numbers have been in steady decline, from about 400,000 in 1950 to between 30,000 and 100,000 in the mid-1990s, and 23,000 and 32,000 lions remaining in the wild in Africa in 59 different populations. More than half have under 100 lions and only six of them have at least 1,000 lions. Amy Dickman, founder of Tanzania’s Ruaha Carnivore Project and a leading member of WildCRU, confirmed 24,000 would probably be an accurate figure for the number of wild lions remaining in Africa (with around 500–600 Asian lions in the wild around the Gir Forest in Gujarat, India). Lions, who occupy only 8% of their original historical range, have declined by 45% since 1995.

Their chief threats are habitat loss, human encroachment on remaining territories (particularly by nomadic pastoralists), human-lion conflict resulting from encroachment and from lion predation on livestock and bushmeat poaching, which reduces lion prey and leave snares that injure or kill lions.

Males are the prime targets of legal hunting but also tend to be the most frequent victims of reactive killing by livestock farmers. As young males leave their birth prides to seek others to take over, their relative inexperience in hunting means they often attack soft targets such as cattle. Cattle owners retaliate by shooting, spearing or poisoning them causing decline that is exacerbated by selective shooting of males in trophy hunts.

Elsewhere in Africa, particularly southern Africa and Tanzania, the existence of large areas of lion habitat set aside for legal, regulated hunting can be important for the retention of a large lion estate that includes fully protected areas and then private photographic safari and hunting reserves. If well regulated with data-backed quotas and age limits (to prevent overkill and the killing of young males before they’ve had the chance to breed), then they can play a role in conservation.

Amy Dickman of WildCRU works to protect lions and ameliorate human-lion conflict along the edge of the Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania. Not a fan of hunting and basing her view on years of research, she is ‘fearful’ that impulsive and emotional responses to trophy hunting could intensify the decline of species such as lions.

If lions are to survive, locally backed, nuanced conservation strategies must be adopted that ensure people do not suffer from lion predation of their animals (and of the people themselves), that habitat is protected, and income generated through whatever viable means to fund conservation and incentivise people to tolerate dangerous wildlife. In some areas – like Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Tanzania – this may mean biting the bullet and accepting a utilitarian approach that hunting, like photographic tourism, brings in income and can be used to good effect in conservation of the habitat that not only supports lions but a diverse range of species.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He teaches at the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent where he is a member of its Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, and is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London. Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence (Routledge), is published this month. Professor Somerville is also the author of Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa.