Q&A Blog | World Lion Day
Leap into this World Lion Day Q&A with Dr. Hans Bauer, a 25-year veteran in lion conservation, who has played a key role at WildCRU in protecting endangered lion subspecies across West, Central, and the Horn of Africa. His efforts include leading initiatives, collaborating with major organizations, and contributing to essential conservation policies. Dr. Bauer has even authored over 100 publications, and his work emphasizes both species protection and community engagement!
Published August 10, 2023
All images provided courtesy of Dr. Hans Bauer.
Learn more about Dr. Bauer and the fascinating work he is involved in:
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Can you tell us about yourself?
I’ve been working on lion conservation across West, Central and the Horn of Africa for 30 years, doing research, supervising students and advising government and non-government organisations. I live in the region and I work remotely for the University of Oxford’s WildCRU, www.wildcru.org.
Can you tell us about the current challenges faced by the northern lion subspecies in West, Central, and the Horn of Africa, and how these challenges impact their conservation?
The lion is found across sub-sahara Africa and in a part of India and is listed as Vulnerable on the Red List, with less than 25.000 lions remaining. Only about 10% belong to the northern subspecies, found in West Africa, Central Africa, parts of the Horn of Africa and India. In West Africa, only a few populations remain, and mostly in areas where jihadist make life very difficult for people and lions alike. In Central Africa, the populations are a bit bigger but still below what is considered ‘safe’ (viable). There is a lack of reliable studies from the Horn of Africa, partly due to the many armed conflicts there, but it doesn’t look much better. Across this region, most countries rank amongst the lowest in terms of relevant indices: economic development, access to water, internet, education. Maybe you know people in your community who have been on safari to Kenya, or South Africa, but do you know anyone that has been in Niger or Sudan? With very few economic benefits from tourism and huge socio-economic challenges, wildlife conservation is often a low priority for these countries, and many protected areas are poorly managed with lions merely hanging on.
Working in regions with significant political and economic challenges must be quite demanding. How do you navigate these complexities while carrying out your conservation efforts?
I’ve been studying and working in this region for so long, you get used to it. I wouldn’t change it, it is a region with amazing opportunity as well – uncharted territory with lions and local people adapting to their environments in surprising ways, mostly undocumented. One advantage is that I work almost exclusively with students in the range states, because I believe that local capacity strengthening is the most efficient use of my time. Since they are locally adapted and embedded, I actually learn a lot from them in return. In conservation, more people and more resources are invested in other regions with larger lion populations, and perhaps they will achieve better results in the long run. But there’s no reason to give up on the more marginal populations and I’m sure that some will persist and these will be very special.
Local communities often play a crucial role in conservation. Can you share some heartwarming stories or experiences where local communities have actively contributed to protecting lions and their habitat?
In many areas, lions persist because of local communities, not despite. In Ethiopia, for example, many protected areas have little more than a symbolic presence of park authorities, if they had to secure the area against the interest of the people that wouldn’t work at all. Park boundaries exist on paper, but there are many people inside and many animals outside. In these areas, lions have adapted to human presence; they become completely nocturnal and very skittish. They hardly ever attack people, and although they do attack cattle, they ‘know’ it is risky and try to avoid human camps. Many communities care a great deal about their environment and, even though they may not like a particular lion in their proverbial backyard, they depend on healthy forests for their livelihoods, respect lions as part of their heritage and have learned to live with them. The challenge will be to take this coexistence into an era with new challenges – more people needing more land and aspiring to modern commodities, more demand for livestock from urban centres, mining for the export of minerals. And of course more land to grow cotton for all your readers who buy cheap clothes and throw them every year – changing your consumption pattern is the easiest thing you can do to help.
As a National Geographic Explorer and Professor, how do you leverage media and educational platforms to raise awareness about lion conservation in these regions and rally support for your cause?
It’s not my cause, it’s the cause of the institutions I work with and the people I train, no ‘white saviour syndrome’ here. As an individual, my impact is limited, I would have long given up. As you say, leveraging support is essential – sometimes with a blog like this, but most of my energy goes to local students and local stakeholders; they are the ones that do the heavy lifting. The essential thing is not to come with the message that lions are more important than anything else, you won’t achieve anything unless you engage with the complexity of rural land use. No politician can go to his constituents, no farmer to his family, no local lecturer to his students, with the narrative that all lions everywhere must be well looked after. Everyone understands that these communities, these countries, have huge challenges and that lions are simply not top priority. Human capacity and financial resources are limited, but then again there are so few lions left that it really doesn’t take miracles to conserve them. If you aim to have lions everywhere and ignore the needs in terms of health, education, agriculture etc., you will get little cooperation. However, there is always willingness to cooperate on keeping the last lions of a nation on land that is already nominally protected, working with the available resources, and mobilising additional foreign support.
Looking to the future, what are your long-term visions and goals for lion conservation in West, Central, and the Horn of Africa? How do you plan to address the dynamic challenges that may arise down the road?
All governments in the region have signed up to a joint vision of conserving all remaining lion populations. The problem is that governments are not very stable at the moment, especially in West Africa. Niger is all over the news at the moment, the latest example of a coup d’état in a country with exceptional biodiversity values – not only lions but also the last population of an endemic giraffe sub-species. These political developments are about decolonisation, the multipolar world, human trafficking, poverty and many other big issues that you don’t learn about in lion conservation, but that affect our work. Questions of lion mane colour, prey preference or the duration of pride tenure are all very interesting biologically and we do have to keep some studies on the backburner, but I’d say that research into locally-led conflict-resilient protected area management is key now. Not very sexy, but this is the reality that you need to take into account if you are considering a career in lion conservation.