The Nation (Nairobi)

1 June 2008

Kenya: King of the Jungle is Dying

(Page 2 of 3)

This is not the only way that one of the world's big five is killed, said Dr Charles Musyoki, a research scientist with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

He says farmers who have lost a part of their herd to lions lace an animal carcass with pesticide, then leave it for the lions that later feed on it and die a slow, painful death.

High demand for land by a growing human population has destroyed much of the lions' habitat.

It is estimated that in Africa alone, 30 per cent of the natural ecosystem of the lion has been taken over by man.

"Areas like Kajiado, Narok, Laikipia and Kitengela are now major settlement zones," Mr Mwebi said. "Some of these settlements end up cutting off the migration paths of the lions."

When these paths are blocked, prides cannot move freely from one side of the savannah to the other.

Interaction with neighbouring prides is limited, resulting in in- breeding.

Eventually, Mr Mwebi said, a recessive gene found in that pride becomes dominant and the species weakens.

But human beings are not entirely responsible for the reduction of the lion population.

Nature also plays a part. Although food shortage has become more severe in some parts of Kenya, lions have been facing this problem for at least the last five years.

The number of herbivores like zebra and antelope that form a major part of the lion's diet has been on the decline.

This scarcity has created an unhealthy competition for food among the lions; through natural selection, only the strong survive.

Lions have also not been spared the ravages of the Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus. This virus works in a manner similar to that of HIV in humans.

Once infected with FIV, a lion's immunity to other diseases is lowered, and it becomes susceptible to infections that result in death.

And just like HIV, the feline variant has no cure, and once the lion is infected, death is certain.

Although the Kenyan lion population has not been affected by this virus (KWS says no death has been linked to FIV), the lion population has in the past been devastated by other viral diseases.

Canine Distemper, a disease with a death rate of 100 per cent, almost cut lion numbers by half in the late 1970s and 1980s. Botswana has been the hardest hit by the FIV virus.

According to KWS records, there are 30,000 lions roaming Africa's wild, half of which inhabit the grasslands of Tanzania. In Kenya, only 2,000 are left.

Ironically, despite the drastic reduction in their numbers, lions are still not categorised as endangered species.

Currently they are classified as 'vulnerable,' just four categories from extinction. But this is as high up the list as KWS would want to go.

Future of the lions

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