The African lion is a threatened species. Only 20,000 to 40,000 wild lions remain, in just 20 percent of their historical range. The vision of lion prides roaming endless savannas, unaffected by people, is a romanticized image that survives in just a few very large protected areas. As the human population continues to grow, rates of conflict with lions and other wildlife are growing.

A lioness crawls through a hole in a fence in the suburbs of Nairobi, less than a mile from Nairobi National Park. (Photo: Stephanie M. Dloniak)

A recent report out of Kenya tells of a young lioness discovered living in a bushy suburb of Nairobi with a trio of 2-month-old cubs. It took 12 rangers and 3 vets from the Kenya Wildlife Service and a small fleet of vehicles more than six hours to dart her and capture the cubs. Then came the question: what to do with her?

Such situations have become so common that some wildlife experts are saying that the best solution for such lions may be euthanasia—despite the lion’s threatened status. The reasoning is unique to Africa. This lion was found in Mukoma Estate, a partly forested, developing suburb on the south side of Nairobi immediately west of Nairobi National Park, about 45 square miles of partly fenced grassland and forest less than five miles from the central business district of a city of more than three million people; baboons, warthogs and a leopard still call Mukoma home.

Many urban carnivores including coyotes, foxes, raccoons and badgers—small animals with generalist diets that allow them to eat just about anything—can be tolerated. But lions, weighing 240 to 600 pounds and eating only meat, are a direct threat to people.

Kenyan wildlife experts believe she was probably living and having cubs outside the park because there is a large lion population inside it—including a number of adult males that pose a risk of infanticide. If she was moved back into the park, she would likely move the cubs back through the fence and into the suburb again creating an ongoing problem and a continuing threat of someone being killed or injured. So returning the lions to the park was not a solution.

Translocation—moving an urban lion to a distant region—is no answer either. Lions do not welcome newcomers. Released into another park, the existing lion population would force her to the boundaries, where she would encounter livestock and people at a time when she is desperate to feed her cubs. Such a move would be a death sentence.

While appearing heartless on the surface, the utilitarian act of euthanizing some problem animals for the greater good of the species may prove critical to having any wild lions in Kenya at all.

Many years ago a renowned anthropologist I know, who spent years in Sierra Leone establishing the country’s first national wildlife park, had a chimpanzee for a pet that he’d rescued from the bush trade. When his work was completed he made plans to return to the U.S. but couldn’t find a home for the chimp. There were no sanctuaries in Africa at the time. And the chimp was habituated to humans. Leaving it uncaged meant certain death. So he put it down. The memory haunts him.

Putting down a lioness and her cubs is a call I certainly wouldn’t want to make.

The report did not say what happened to the lions.

Source: New York Times.