It's a Sunday in South Africa, and on the green lawn of the Weltevrede Lion Farm, arms reach for a white animal that could double for a cuddly stuffed animal. Visitors are being allowed to pet Lisa, an eight-week-old lion cub with unusual coloring.
Lisa was two weeks old when she was taken from her mother. "To make them manageable you have to do this," explains Christiaan, who is leading visitors on a tour of the grounds.
When cubs are born here, on this lion farm in Vrystaat, a province of South Africa, "each employee is assigned to bottle-feed one of them," says Christiaan. "You can buy a cub for 40,000 rand (3,400, or $4,455)." A delighted visitor asks whether she can take a lion baby into her room at night. It can be arranged, promises the guide.
Lisa's father, a grown specimen with a stately mane who lives in the enclosure, can be had for about 20,000. Roughly 2,000 lions are kept in captivity in Vrystaat alone, where they are bred for a practice called "canned hunting." It's a diversion that executives at major German companies have been known to enjoy.
The king of the animals has fallen on hard times in his own kingdom. "In all of South Africa, there are almost as many lions behind bars as in the wild," says Fiona Miles of the Vrystaat chapter of the international animal rights group Four Paws, which has been unsuccessful in its efforts to protest the hunting of animals that are somewhat tame and are sometimes even drugged to keep them calm. "As a first step to ban canned hunting," Miles is calling for a moratorium on the breeding of lions.
Across the entire continent, the large African predator, a symbol of strength and majesty, is threatened with decline. Outside fenced enclosures, there is hardly any room left for Panthera leo. Scientists and conservationists warn that the king of the steppes has lost much of his habitat in the last 50 years.
The main reason is the gradual disappearance of the savannah. With shrinking African grasslands, lion populations have declined dramatically. Of about 100,000 lions that roamed the continent's dry grassy plains in the 1960s, there are no more than 35,000 left today, says Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "That's a real collapse in populations."
Pimm and an international team of scientists have just published the alarming results of a new study. "Land use and the transformation of land through tremendous population growth have chopped up and destroyed the savannah," Pimm explains. Only a quarter of an ecosystem that was once larger than the United States still exists today, he says, noting that this shrinkage is almost as severe as rainforest loss.
"It's bitterly shocking," says Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist at George Mason University in Virginia and a member of the Big Cats Initiative, whose goal is to preserve the world's big cats.
"First we have to know what needs to be protected," says Pimm. To obtain more precise figures on the population of African lions, he and his team compiled the most comprehensive collection of data on African lion populations to date. Both the local population and hunting organizations assisted in the effort. The results were published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
Whereas older satellite images depicted a largely intact savannah, higher-resolution imaging technology enabled the scientists to pinpoint small fields and settlements scattered throughout the environment. "Lions can't show up there," says co-author Jason Riggio.
The scientists identified 67 individual savannah zones in which human populations are small enough to allow for the survival of the big cats. Only 10 of them, six in South Africa and four in East Africa, proved to be "bastions" that still offer lions a good chance of survival. Most of these habitats are in protected areas like the Kruger and Serengeti National Parks.
The decline of the lion began long ago. In fact, German zoologist Alfred Brehm began observing it more than a century ago. "The days when 600 lions could be brought together to fight in an arena were thousands of years ago," he concluded. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, up to 100 lions died in a single event. Pompey the Great exhibited 600 lions, while up to 400 were sent to the arena under Caesar. "But it wasn't until the invention of guns" that the animal, a dangerous threat to livestock herds, was "pushed back and eventually exterminated" everywhere, Brehm writes in his book "Brehm's Life of Animals." Hunters, like the legendary Jules Gérard, had rid North Africa of the supposed plague of Berber lions, and Morocco's last lion was shot to death in 1920.