Counting dwindling lions in Africa

Dr Samantha Nicholson during an Endangered Wildlife Trust lion collaring project in the Kruger National Park. | Supplied

Dr Samantha Nicholson during an Endangered Wildlife Trust lion collaring project in the Kruger National Park. | Supplied

Published May 12, 2024


Durban — Lions are vulnerable to extinction across Africa, where their numbers have declined by about 36% in the last two decades.

Conservationists like Samantha Nicholson are working hard to prevent this from happening.

This week Nicholson graduated with a PhD from the University of KwaZulu-Natal where her thesis focused on providing an up-to-date conservation assessment on the status of lions on the continent.

“I looked at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list status, determining their risk to extinction, which we found to be vulnerable. We looked at the threats to the species across the entire African range, and then also the fragility of the sub-populations across Africa in terms of their vulnerability to extinction,” she said.

Nicholson said South Africa was one of the few countries in Africa where lion numbers were increasing, with between 2 500 and 3 500 lions living in wild environments. The count excluded captive lions.

“That’s in managed meta-population reserves – the smaller fenced reserves, the Kruger National Park and all our larger national parks, where lions can hunt freely and live naturally.

“Generally lion populations are increasing, although some populations are seeing an increase in direct poaching – whether this is being snared accidentally in snares laid for bushmeat, or whether they’ve been targeted for parts – that is definitely increasing in some areas of South Africa.”

Nicholson has loved wildlife from an early age, nurtured by her parents who took her to the Pilanesberg National Park every year from the time she was born and making zoology an obvious career choice. In 2002 her passion netted her a Mail and Guardian 200 Young South Africans’ award which recognised future leaders who have a positive effect on society.

“I’ve always been passionate about carnivore conservation. I’ve always connected with them the most and had the greatest passion for them.

“My day-to-day job is managing the IUCN Cat Specialist Group’s African lion database. I started at the Endangered Wildlife Trust in 2018 and my project consolidates lion population and distribution data from across their range. While working on this I saw some of the data and information gaps with regards to the species’ conservation. I decided to pursue a PhD to try to fill some of those gaps.”

Independent on Saturday