Future generations might not see the lion except as a picture in a book, experts warn. / Photo: Getty Images

By Sylvia Chebet

Every battle has an unsung hero. In the African savannah, the rousing tale of the lion's resurgence in the face of odds wouldn't be complete without the inspiring story of Team Lioness.

Eunice Peneti, 30, heads Kenya's first all-female ranger unit at Amboseli National Park, a sprawling ecosystem that nurtures an abundance of diverse wildlife, watched over by Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance.

Peneti and her team constantly comb the expansive grassland, protecting the king of the jungle from the omnipresent danger of poaching or poisoning.

Team Lioness's impact while building on the work of a decade is reflected in the steady growth of Kenya's lion population – up 25% between 2010 and 2021. Data from the Kenya Wildlife Service shows the Eastern African nation's lion count in 2021 at 2,589.

The rewarding outcome of this conservation effort defies global trends, although none of it has come easy.

Peneti knows this more than anyone else. With her deep understanding of lion behaviour and the challenges to this regal animal's existence, she soldiers on in the wild with her all-women team every single day.

The rangers' brief is simple: don't let your guard down even for a moment.

"Our presence in the park deters those who seek to harm these magnificent animals. By actively patrolling and engaging with the local community, we ensure these lions can live and thrive in a safe environment," Peneti tells TRT Afrika.

Rumble in the jungle

An estimated 25,000 lions roam in the wild today, down from 200,000 a century ago. / Photo: Getty Images

For Peneti and her team, there is no greater satisfaction than spotting a pride of lions at peace with themselves in the solitude of the savannah.

On a typical foray out in the field, her gaze would invariably rest on lions lying in the shade with their cubs, focused on the prey they have possibly just hunted down. The sight makes her day.

"There are so many lions with little ones or young adults. This tells us that the lion numbers have increased," she says.

As the patrol crew drives off, a lioness stands tall on a towering anthill, her golden fur gleaming in the sunlight, her piercing amber eyes scanning the horizon. It's how they are meant to be.

Kenya's conservation efforts may be paying off, but globally not as much. Lions have made it to the infamous Red List of Threatened Species.

A study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature reveals a disheartening 43% decline in the African lion population between 1993 and 2014.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that only 20,000-25,000 lions remain in the wild today, down from approximately 200,000 a century ago.

"There are now only a handful of countries where we can still find lions," Edith Kabesiime, wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection (WAP), tells TRT Afrika. "Rwanda has had to airlift lions and restock the country's wilds."

David Mascall, an expert in lion conservation, warns that if nothing is done, the future of the species across Africa looks grim. "Future generations might not see the lion except as a picture in a book."

Kenya's 'magic wand'

Yussuf Wato, biodiversity, research and innovation programme manager at WWF-Kenya, attributes Kenya's lion boom to a multi-pronged conservation strategy.

"Conservation organisations have implemented various initiatives to prevent human-wildlife conflicts such as predator-proof bomas (enclosures), lion lights and community-led conservancies," he explains.

Predator-proof bomas are fortified enclosures that protect livestock from lions at night, while lion lights are flashing lights that deter the big cats from approaching human settlements.

A study published in Frontiers in Conservation Science found that predator bomas reduced livestock predation by 80%. Another study published in the journal Oryx revealed that lion lights reduced lion attacks on livestock by 70%.

There has also been a rise in the number of community-led conservancies, which are protected areas managed by local communities.

One example of a successful community-based conservation initiative is the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, a network of more than 150 conservancies.

Kenya’s Masai Mara conservancies surround the Masai Mara National Reserve to the north, northeast and east. Photo: Reuters

Kabesiime calls Kenya's community-led conservation model its "magic wand".

A call to action

Experts have been cautioning countries that protecting the king of the jungle is not an option.

"Lions are predators, and they sit at the apex of the food chain. This means they occupy a crucial place in the entire ecosystem, so much so that anything destabilising the ecosystem will destabilise the lions," says Kabisiime.

She cites the example of Uganda, where political turmoil in the 70s and 80s caused a massive decline in wildlife populations due to the breakdown of law and order.

A peculiar thing has happened since. There are just about 400 lions left in Uganda.

The Uganda Wildlife Conservation Center plans to set up lion-breeding facilities in some of its parks, but WAP cautions against the move, noting it has failed in South Africa.

"Cage-breeding and hand-feeding lions is an impractical way of trying to fix a complex problem," says Kabisiime.

She questions how to teach lions to be effective hunters in an enclosure. Even more confounding to her is how cubs from the pride of tree-climbing lions of Ishasha, a big attraction in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth Park, can be trained to do so.

Lions belong in the wild and should not be bred in cages, World Animal Protection says. Photo: Getty Images

Getting used to hand feeding would also make the lions prey only on easy targets such as livestock, potentially worsening the human-wildlife conflict.

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TRT Afrika