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Lions once roamed most of the continents on earth. Today you will only find a small number in India and the rest in Africa south of the Sahara.
Lion fossils have been found in Italy, Germany, northern Asia and even North America. And, lions were still relatively common in areas like Turkey and India as recently as 1850. You can still find lions in an old Indian royal hunting ground. Located in the Gir Forest, the remaining lion population in India is tiny, with only about 250 animals left to roam. But, you won’t find lions in Europe any longer, they’ve become extinct in these areas.
Where Do Lions Live today?
Most of the lions you’ll find (outside of zoos, of course) call Africa their home. They’re hardly prolific though; lions don’t roam the streets or villages. Indeed, the African lion population has suffered greatly in the past several decades. Over the past 30 years, we’ve lost a large percentage of the lion population. And, part of the dramatic decrease in population is linked to the loss of 75% of the territory available to prides across the continent. (Prides are lion packs, as Disney’s The Lion King may have taught you.)
Still, considering that lions perhaps roamed in Germany, it’s saddening that lions have become extinct in 26 countries in the recent past. Any number of reasons contributed to the decline in territory and population levels. As late as the 1900s, the word safari often meant hunting in the West, and wealthy travellers would often spend holidays taking down as many lions as they could. But, the larger reason was most often the expansion of human territory.
Do African Lions Have a Home to Call Their Own?
Despite a reduction in numbers, there are still plenty of lions on the African continent – and they all need somewhere to call home. With development taking over Africa, lions are squeezed into pockets of land within just a handful of countries. Most wild lions live in six sub-Saharan countries:
Not all free African lions live in these territories, of course. There are a few, rather fascinating, prides left in more remote areas of the continent. About 13 lions remain in Cameroon, which is rather isolated from the majority of prides. In Addis Ababa, a large zoo population of 20 lions is believed to be linked to a small group that remains in the Ethiopian wild. And a few lions still remain in the deserts of Namibia; occasionally, these prides even pop over to the coastal areas.
If Wild Lions Don’t Live in Zoos, Where Do They Live?
Africa may be the wild continent, but it’s hardly without borders. (Indeed, borders have been a big issue on the continent since states began fighting for their independence in the past century.) Lions are subjected to borders too; they aren’t free to roam where they please. And, often these boundaries are more defined than border crossings between countries. While that may sound frightfully sad, it’s not as desperate as it sounds.
In Africa, lions don’t live in zoos. (Well, a few of them do, just as they do in most countries across the globe.) African lions live in game parks and national reserves. These are (usually) expansive tracks of land where African wildlife can roam free. The best-known areas are the Kruger Park in South Africa and the Masai Mara Park in Kenya. For reference, the Kruger Park is 19,485 square kilometers (7,523 square miles). That’s about the size of Wales, half the size of Switzerland, and almost twice the size of Massachusetts. In other words, that’s a lot of land!
It’s in game parks like these that most of the 32,000 wild African lions live today. And, while they’re bordered by long, high fences in places, game parks are nothing at all like zoos. For the most part, these lions live the life they were born to lead, living in prides and hunting for prey around known watering holes. (Incidentally, those watering holes are popular with all animals, which make them one of the best places for lions to meet their dinner.)
Visiting Wild Lions in Their Natural Habitat
Although animals have control over their movements in game parks (as opposed to the tight enclosures of zoos), these are still regulated areas. Most game parks are large tracks of bush and plains set aside for game and protected by national governments and international organisations. Tourists, volunteers and natural scientists are welcome to visit most African game parks – as long as they abide by parameters set by the governing bodies.
Game park regulations vary according to the needs of the natural inhabitants and the safety of visitors. Certain parks operate visitor programs based on the time of year and the time of day. And, of course, providing the ultimate experience is often dependent on the movements of all the animals in the park.
Lion movements are closely linked to those of their prey. But, lion enthusiasts (not lion-hunting enthusiasts) can visit public and private game parks throughout the year in any of the six countries still home to wild lions. Experienced game rangers are adept at spotting lions for viewing during any season. And you’ll uncover unique experiences in each country.
Botswana offers an incredible lion viewing experience in the Okavango Delta. Although an island, large buffalo roam in the area. Despite the size of these animals, the local lions have become adept at hunting here given the natural barriers.
Kenya is a known safari destination (in the proper sense, not the lion-hunting definition of the word) and steeped in tourism know-how. Fans of the BBC Series “Big Cat Diaries” are likely to be drawn to the game parks where this show is filmed.
South Africa is the most developed country of the six. The infrastructure available ensures first-time visitors to Africa a complete experience. Not only are there incredible game parks like the Kruger and the Pilanesburg, but there are also wine farms, mountains and sandy beaches you can add to your itinerary.
Tanzania plays host to the largest number of wild lions anywhere in the world. The Serengeti Plain extends from northern Tanzania into Kenya, and it’s here that you’ll find lions lurking behind Wildebeest. When these enormous bucks migrate between July and October (or during the birthing months of January through March), you’ll find lions on the prowl.
Zambia boasts an incredible number of wild lion sightings between June and October at South Luangwa National Park. You can keep track of where lions are throughout the day by following @lioncamp on Twitter. It can be very helpful on self-drives when you’re short on time.
Zimbabwe offers at least one walking tour for the truly brave. You might be able to get as close as 20 meters (65 feet) from lions in this park without any barriers between you. However, this is not for families with young children and safety is a concern at all times.
If you’re looking for the best game parks for viewing wild lions in their natural habitats, you’ll want to consider:
- Kruger National Park (South Africa)
- Mana Pools National Park (Zimbabwe)
- Masi Mara National Reserve (Kenya)
- Okavango Delta (Botswana)
- Pilanesburg National Park (South Africa)
- Ruaha National Park (Tanzania)
- Sabi Sand Reserve (South Africa)
- Serengeti National Park (Tanzania)
- South Luangwa National Park (Zambia)
- Victoria Falls (Zambia / Zimbabwe)
There are many more parks scattered throughout southern Africa. However, not all of them will feature lions or frequent lion sightings if they do.
What Can’t You Do in Wild Lion Territories?
National game parks and protected reserves offer a lot more than just lion viewing, but the one thing that all of these parks staunchly prohibit is hunting. Although lion hunting was considered sport on the African continent for centuries, it’s no longer seen as fashionable, or ethical, in most quarters.
Laws against canned lion hunting are in place in many areas. However, in 2010, South Africa repealed the relevant law. Unfortunately, this means that about 3500 lions are captive across ranches within South Africa’s borders. While still wild, these animals are hardly living in the wild. Tourists are urged to stay away from these ranches. Reputable travel agents and tour booking services should vet any lodges before you add them to your itinerary. But, if you’re concerned about a particular park, it is always best to inquire with them or a tourism representative.
Make the Most of Your African Lion Experience
Visiting lions where they live is an absolute pleasure for most visitors to Africa. In addition to game drives (especially the early morning and night drives which offer the best views), tourists can expect to be treated to an extraordinary experience. Around (and usually within) the borders of game parks and reserves, are full-service lodges that offer unparalleled luxury in the middle of the bush. Gourmet meals, spa services and cultural tours are the name of the game in these venues. Lodges typically provide private game drives through the park for their guests.
But, visitors with a strict budget can also indulge their lion viewing fantasies with self-catering rooms and even camping venues. You might be able to join in a game drive provided through this type of accommodation, though it is likely to carry an extra fee. In many parks, you’re welcome to journey through the area as a self-drive visitor in your own car. Just remember, it’s all natural terrain and most rental cars aren’t suited for this experience.
However you enjoy your African lion experience, just remember that a little safety goes a long way. After all, the reason lions were brought into the arenas of ancient Rome is that they’re ever so terrifying. It was true then and it’s still true today. (However, you might not believe it after spotting a pride of lions napping under the African sun all day.)
Trophy Hunting and the Cecil Effect
Despite efforts made by many governments and wildlife conservationists, lion hunting persists. Not only is it legal, but hunters pay a lot of money to participate in trophy hunts.
On 1 July 2015, a black-maned lion by the name of Cecil was killed just outside of his home grounds of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Not only did this 13-year-old lion have a name, but he also had a collar. Cecil was part of a study by the University of Oxford and was being tracked through GPS.
It’s believed that Walter Palmer, an American hunter (and dentist), and his party lured Cecil from a protected area and hunted him after dark – both prohibited activities.
Palmer faces no charges levied by the Zimbabwean government. However, he encountered many activists and an outpouring of hatred within days of his kill.
Almost a year later, a group of organisations released a report, Beyond Cecil: Africa’s Lions in Crisis, identifying the causes of Africa’s declining lion population.
The “Cecil Report” states that roughly US $1.25 billion annually is needed to protect and enhance the lives of African lions.
While this appears, on the surface, to be a big step in the right direction, a closer look reveals something different. The “Cecil Report” suggests minimum ages for legal hunting (that’s for the lions, not the hunters) and temporary limits in cases where populations have been over culled. It’s never easy to determine age (and once it has been established, the lion in question is already dead). And the latter fails to account for the frightening decline in lion numbers at all.
What may be more useful is the backlash known as the “Cecil Effect” – no one wants to be seen hunting lions after the public humiliation of Palmer. Hunting tourist numbers have plummeted, and many countries have made importation of lion trophies illegal, or at least incredibly difficult. Additionally, several international air carriers have established policies banning the transport of Big Five trophies.
Perhaps the best thing to come of the entire incident is the conversation regarding whether lions should be protected and how. And as for the extreme amount of money needed to care for Africa’s lion population? Clearly, much is needed, and it’s likely that the bulk will be raised through responsible lion and Big Five tourism.