Two important sets of numbers about large mammals have emerged in the past few days. One tells a story of conservation success whereas the other tale is far from that.
Let’s start with the good news, which comes out of India. According to results of a census released this weekend, the country is now home to 523 critically endangered Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica), an increase of 27 percent since the previous census in 2010. Even better, 213 of those lions are young cubs, which suggests that the population increase has the potential to continue for additional generations.
A species almost forgotten by the general public, Asiatic lions live in and around the Gir forest in the Indian state of Gujarat. The species was nearly hunted into extinction, and the lions that remain today all descend from just 13 lions that gained protection in 1907. Since then the lions have become synonymous with the Gir region, which has embraced the large predators even though their presence near human settlements occasionally results in the deaths of humans or livestock (and more often of the lions when they fall into wells or come into contact with electric fences).
Now, the really bad news. This weekend the South African government announced that 393 rhinos had been poached in the first four months of this year. That’s an increase of 18 percent over poaching in the same period last year. A record 1,215 rhinos were poached in South Africa in 2014. Hundreds were killed in other countries.
The vast majority of the rhino poaching–290 animals–occurred in Kruger National Park, which holds about 40 percent of South Africa’s rhinos and has been invaded by an estimated 900 poaching groups so far this year. The country now counts 18,800 white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum) and 1,900 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) as remaining, according to a new report by South African officials, also released this weekend.
Of course neither the lion population nor the rhino poaching numbers tell complete stories.
For one thing, India’s lions may now face additional threats from too many animals being squeezed into too little habitat. Gujarat has spent the past few years fighting efforts to move some of the lions a few hundred kilometers away in order to create a second population site. WWF (World Wildlife Fund) India Director Diwakar Sharma told AFP this week that relocating part of the population will encourage the development of genetic diversification, and that would help to ensure that all of the lions aren’t struck down at once by a potential virus or other natural event. It would also minimize the chances of future lion-human conflict.
As for the rhinos, the nuances are sunnier. The poaching may be up but so are poacher arrests. South Africa has detained 132 suspects so far this year, including 62 in Kruger. That’s only a slight increase over the number during the same period last year, but it is still progress. New techniques put into use over the past year that employ antipoaching dogs, helicopters and other new technologies–often provided by international partners–will hopefully help to bring that number up even higher before the end of this year.
Overall, despite complications, the future of Asiatic lions appears to be bright. Rhinos, on the other hand, are in the cross hairs. If the illegal trade in their horns is not stopped soon, we may very well be looking at more rhino species extinctions in the coming years.
Photos: Lion photos (C) and courtesy of Kishore Kotecha. Used with permission. Rhino in Kruger National Park by Russ Huggett. Used under Creative Commons license
Previously in Extinction Countdown:
- The Last 3 Bornean Rhinos Are in a Race against Extinction
- To Save the Sumatran Rhino, Zoo Will Attempt to Mate Brother and Sister
- 1,215: The Record Number of Rhinos Poached in 2014
- Another Northern White Rhino Dies, Only 5 Remain
- How the Western Black Rhino Went Extinct
- African Lions Face Extinction by 2050, Could Gain Endangered Species Act Protection
- Shocking Study Finds Lions are Nearly Extinct in West Africa
- Lion Meat Tacos (You Read That Right) Are the Latest Threat to Conservation