Cry Lion! Blame Maasai!

Lions are in rapid decline. But celebrity scientists and popular media like National Geographic are sensationalizing the problem with a racist swipe at the Maasai.

There has been a barrage of appeals from wildlife organizations and celebrity scientists recently for funds to “save lions.” Three months ago, National Geographic sent an urgent appeal to donors to replenish a $150,000 emergency grant it had given well-known conservationists, including the film-maker Dereck Joubert, to save Amboseli lions.

In February, the prestigious African Wildlife Foundation sent out an urgent memorandum from CEO Patrick Bergin for $85,100 to save Tarangire lions.

In March, CBS’ 60 Minutes featured the decline of lions by interviewing Dr. Laurence Frank of the University of California Berkeley, who actually claimed on air that it is likely the lion will go extinct, because… Maasai are poisoning them.

In all the above it was the Maasai’s fault. Frank claimed it was poisoning. National Geo said it was spears. And AWF claimed it was stealth murder of undefined sorts for lions killing domestic stock.

The remedies – which I consider outrageously laughable – were to (AWF) build high wire fences around domestic stock; (NatGeo) compensate Maasai whose stock had been taken; and (60Min) collar every lion and track it, then send a text message to Maasai cell phones when a lion is found in the area.

I can’t believe this.

Let me catch my sanity before I continue. First of all, I believe this nonsense is a logical marketing ploy in today’s milieu of needing to affirm imminent doom. And simple doom, not complicated doom. We can’t handle complicated doom: The swine flu is going to wipe us all out. The recession is a depression. Iran and North Korea are going to blow up Guam. Maasai are killing lions.

Lions are in decline. And they have been in decline for the better part of a half century, and that decline has accelerated noticeably in the last decade. A half century ago there may have been as many as 200,000 lion in Africa, and today there are around 30,000.

But it isn’t due to any simple act, like Maasai aggression, which can be remedied or forestalled by building fences, compensating herders or putting collar data on Facebook.

It’s due to many reasons, and one of the least direct ones is human/animal conflict. Certainly anything that effects local populations, like an economic downturn, is going to stress all sorts of fragile ecological dynamics. Yes, Maasai probably are killing more lion now than a decade ago, and especially this year, because the Kenyan government has closed the public schools for lack of money, and there are a lot of kids with less to do.

The grain that was supposed to be distributed throughout Tanzania and Kenya has been mercilessly diverted by corrupted officials themselves stressed by less aid, and undoubtedly every remaining goat or cow is more precious than ever. There are fewer tourists to provide jobs, and sustenance living is becoming more pronounced. There are all sorts of end reasons why Maasai probably are killing a few more lion than they used to.

BUT THAT ISN”T THE MAIN PROBLEM. And these cockamamy remedies will do little but limelight the organizations and celebrities promoting them.

Let’s move to some real science.

Recently, the Kenyan Wildlife Service completed careful review of more than 250 studies submitted them in the last decade regarding lion declines. The results were unequivocal.

According to Dr Samuel Kasiki, KWS’ deputy director for biodiversity research, the problem is climate change: specifically, extreme weather and air pollution.

“We have only begun some serious work in this area and perhaps in five years time, we will be in a position to talk more confidently on the issue,” Dr Kasiki said in an interview for Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper. With the care we should expect from real science, he went on to explain that adequate scientific data on climate change and global warming and its impact on wildlife is still lacking in the country.

Whereas poisoning, spearing and gruesome lion kills of goats are satisfactorily documented?

Kasiki’s initial findings make for fascinating science. One of the many discoveries he would now like to fund for more study was that increasing temperatures and poorer air quality are leading to a reduction in the lions’ manes. It has been shown that lions with better manes enjoy longer reproductive life-spans and higher offspring survival. The lack of a better mane – due to global climate change – ultimately results in fewer lions.

“The lion is more prone to rising temperature levels, which consequently leads to abnormal sperm and low sperm count,” Kasiki reported. He also documented that lions’ hunting success declines as temperatures rise.

Perhaps the most respected lion scientists in the world – someone who has dedicated his life to lion study – is Dr. Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota. Packer has spent much of his life in East Africa.

His studies are voluminous and therefore difficult to compile in one page urgent memos or air on prime time TV. But his more than 30 years of careful study has detailed lion decline, especially through periods of what he calls “mass die-offs.”

I hesitate to simplify his extraordinary science, but I think it’s fair to say he believes that like Dr. Kasiki, climate change is the ultimate villain.

His most recent findings target outbreaks of canine distemper virus (CDV) and infestations by a tick-borne blood parasite called Babesia. The two diseases are normally completely unrelated and in a more balanced ecology would be very unlikely to occur at the same time.

But climate change changes this. First in 1994, then again in 2001, and now maybe again now, what Packer calls a “perfect storm” of extreme drought followed by heavy seasonal rains – a growing condition common on the equator with increasing global temperatures – triggers the two devastating diseases to converge.

When they did in 1994, the Serengeti lost a third of its lion population. The same thing happened in Ngorongoro Crater in 2001.

And it may be happening, again, today. Not those troublesome Maasai spearing or poisoning lions; not the revenge of school kids on vacation, but … climate change.

Packer even discovered the exact link of the tick disease to the lion. It wasn’t that ticks were infesting lions directly, but rather, through Cape buffalo. And forgive my interjection of non scientific anecdotes, but in the last few years we’ve seen more and more lion feeding on buffalo.

Rarely, do we find buffalo actually hunted then killed by lion – that’s really too difficult for most lion. But we often see them feeding on what had to have been a buffalo that had already died before the lion found it.

Climate change, Packer explains, has seriously weakened buffalo populations. Buffalo eat grass; only grass. Droughts wipe out the grass. Downpours following the droughts (a climate change phenomenon as explained above) bring out the Babesia-carrying ticks en masse which then infect the buffalo big time. The buffalo die. The lions feast on weakened, parasite-infested buffalo. Lion infected with CDV then get the double whammy from the tick, and… die.

“CDV is immunosuppressive—like a short, sharp bout of AIDS—thus greatly intensifying the effects of the Babesia,” Packer said. This co-infection, or synchronization of the diseases, caused the mass die offs, Packer and his colleagues concluded.

Packer warns that as temperatures continue to increase producing these drought/flood conditions on the equator, “potentially fatal synchronized infections are likely to become more common.”

So I’m now appealing for your urgent $50 donation to end – once and for all – climate change.

You see, the real reason is more onerous, complicated and far more difficult to deal with than what I consider a near racist swipe at the Maasai. Calm down, America, and enact Obama’s energy policy please.