Saving the Last Lions

Just 50 years ago there were close to a half-million lions in Africa -- about 450,000 in all. Today there are between 16,000 and 23,000. And yet, unlike elephants (a far more numerous species), lions have no protection under the international accord governing such matters.

Big cats are in trouble everywhere. The number of tigers has dipped below 3,000. Indeed, as we look at the lion population today, it's the shadow of the tiger's history that scares me most. Tiger bones are used extensively in the East for medicines and mythological (read nonsense) cures for ailments or limp libidos, and the demand is increasing. A growing demand and a disappearing supply is a formula for disaster.

The solution we are seeing play out is a switch from tiger bones to lion bones, which can be easily sold off as tiger bones. It's ironic that the most famous animal in Africa, perhaps in the world, can't even be poached on its own value but only as a "mock tiger."

This week the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is meeting to decide whether lions, whose numbers have declined by 50 percent in the past 20 years, are worthy of protection under Appendix I to the convention: the listing of the most endangered animals. The problem is that the safari hunting industry and buyers in Asia are opposing it, because such a decree would limit what they can do with the trophies. Fact: Appendix I does not mean you can't shoot a lion -- it means you can't import the skin to hang on the wall. And the answer to the question we are asked a thousand times is: Yes, you can still go to Africa to kill a lion.

CITES needs a country to sponsor the motion for lion protection. We can't, so far, get one to put its hand up first, to take on the issue and save lions. No one will risk offending big safari hunting lobbies. It would seem that many are just not thinking this through. Extinction threatens by the year 2020. Then there will be no lions to hunt, or to protect.

(Meanwhile another ominous development poses a further threat to wildlife. A pesticide is being used by poachers to kill lions and many other animals. Sprinkled on meat, it kills lions, hyenas, vultures and other creatures in minutes).

We don't have much time. The biggest threat isn't hunters, poachers or poison makers -- it is our own complacency, the lazy hope that someone else is taking care of the great beasts of Africa.

Lions and other large predators are disappearing even as we learn more about the collapse of entire ecosystems. The $200 billion a year reaped from ecotourism will be lost, causing suffering among communities all over Africa that rely on this trade.

As explorers in residence at National Geographic, my wife, Beverly, and I are calling on everyone with even a remote interest in big cats, or in Africa, to make sure that these wild systems keep working well. Scientists, conservationists -- everyone -- must come together, work together and support this effort now: the Big Cats Initiative. It's a movement that doesn't want to exclude a single soul or leave out any idea on how to reduce the conflict. We have a short window of time in which we can remedy this. It is closing very rapidly.

Dereck Joubert and Beverly Joubert, his wife. Both are National Geographic explorers in residence. They have spent years making films and writing about the big cats of Africa. To view some of their photos and films, visit For more information, visit