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Making 'Living With Lions' Practical In Kenya

A largely unseen conservation crisis threatens the existence of perhaps the most iconic animal of all — the African lion. Lions may be practically extinct in the wild in the next 20 years.

The so-called "King of the Jungle" is under severe threat, with estimated population throughout the continent down 90 percent in the last two decades. There are probably no more than 30,000 lions left, and some estimates put the number significantly lower — perhaps only a little more than 20,000.

In two reports on NPR's Day to Day, we follow a leading lion researcher, Laurence Frank from the University of California, Berkeley; The Wildlife Conservation Society; and the Panthera Foundation. After many years as a wildlife researcher based in East Africa, Frank has become an advocate working to save the remaining lion populations of Kenya. The alternative, he says, is to lose the very quality of "wildness" that lions represent.

What's Happened To The Lions?

The critical decline in lion populations is mostly overlooked because many visitors to Kenya and other African wildlife destinations will easily see plenty of lions in national parks and on game reserves like Kenya's famed Maasai Mara. But few game parks are large enough sustain healthy lion populations, and those that are may become like refuge islands — genetically vulnerable to disease and inbreeding.

Outside the parks, wild lions are increasingly killed by local livestock herders, especially among Kenya's still semi-nomadic Maasai. Traditional herding practices aren't needed so much now that there's a much simpler solution to the threat lions pose to wandering cattle and goats: poison. It's widely available in rural communities where a dollar's worth of pesticide can kill an entire pride of lions. And it's been a Maasai tradition for young warriors to hunt lions with spears.

Living With Lions

Working from a base in the Laikipia region of northern Kenya, Frank established Living with Lions to study human-lion conflicts and to find ways to resolve them without the inevitable death of the lions. He soon realized two things: the herder-predator confrontations are growing more frequent as open range land becomes more scarce; and the old traditional herding practices already provide an answer to most problems.

When humans domesticated livestock 12,000 years ago, they faced the same or greater threats from lions, wolves, hyenas and other wild carnivores. Herdsmen soon devised protected shelters — corrals — for their animals. In East Africa, these are usually temporary structures made from thorn bush formed into enclosures called bomas. It's ancient technology that still works, though not as easily as modern poisons.

The real task for Frank and other conservationists is to make the practical consequences of living with lions worthwhile to ordinary rural Kenyans. A lion in the neighborhood — or even over those distant hills — can mean many complications. There are ways to help resolve them: conservation projects; wildlife tourism (though locals seldom see the money); good livestock and wildlife management practices; and an appeal to the inherent Maasai and traditionalist respect for these truly awesome creatures.

But these will all take time, and lions don't have much of that left.

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