National Geographic: Investing in a Better Future for Lions

Male African lion, charging. Duba, Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic

Today is World Lion Day. And Saturday is World Elephant Day. Sadly, most people go about their business unaware that some of the most iconic species on our planet are in serious peril. It’s not until a well-known lion like Cecil, or most recently his son Xanda, is killed that the world takes notice. But even last month’s news of Xanda’s passing hardly registered given the global headlines dominating news coverage.

At National Geographic, rather than focus our efforts on a single day, we make every day about illuminating the need to reverse the troubling trends negatively affecting lions, elephants, rhinos and other species in danger. Whether it’s through creating compelling content or providing support to researchers in the field, we push the boundaries of exploration to further our understanding of our planet and empower us all to generate solutions for a healthier and more sustainable future for all living things.

One of our primary vehicles for change is investing in amazing on-the-ground innovators. We give grants to protect the world’s remaining lion populations through the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI). Founded in 2009 with Dereck and Beverly Joubert — filmmakers, conservationists and Explorers-in-Residence — BCI is a long-term endeavor to halt the decline of big cats in the wild. The initiative supports efforts to save big cats through assessment, on-the-ground conservation, education and global public awareness campaigns.

National Geographic 2016 Emerging Explorer and Big Cats Initiative grantee Thandiwe Mweetwa. Photo by Martin Edström/National Geographic

These efforts include the work of National Geographic Emerging Explorer Thandiwe Mweetwa, a lion biologist striving to save big cats in her native Zambia, and Jeneria Lekilelei, a Samburu warrior who once hunted lions, but now works to protect them. Together, our BCI grantees are making a profound difference.

In fact, when surveyed last year, BCI grant recipients reported that the funding they received helped protect big cats across more than 1,800,000 square kilometers worldwide. It also facilitated the prevention of more than 2,600 big cat mortalities, more than 2,000 of which were lions. “With some recent scientific papers speculating that lion numbers may be declining to near 20,000 remaining in the wild worldwide, the positive repercussions of BCI funding couldn’t be more clear,” shared BCI’s Luke Dollar.

We also give grants to individuals who want to protect our world’s wildlife and wild places. These funds are awarded to bold people who are developing novel approaches to support biological diversity and abundance given the accelerated loss of species. We’re willing to fund grantees who are in the early stages of their careers and, in some cases, yet to complete advanced degrees. Because sometimes that’s where bold ideas start.

The Okavango Delta in Botswana depends on the flow of water from its catchment in Angola. Traveling by way of mekoro, a traditional dugout canoe propelled by pole, Steve Boyes and the Okavango Wilderness Project team have embarked on a multiyear series of expeditions to explore and study the rivers that feed the Okavango Delta from their sources in the Angolan highlands. Photo by James Kydd/National Geographic

And then there are our larger signature projects — scaled-up efforts embraced by the entire organization. One of them, the Okavango Wilderness Project (OWP), aims to protect Africa’s Okavango River Basin, from its headwaters in Angola to the iconic Okavango Delta in Botswana. In September 2016, the National Geographic Society made a $10 million, multiyear commitment to this audacious undertaking, one that will hopefully help protect the myriad species living in this majestic ecosystem. These include some of the continent’s last great lion prides.

Just this week, the OWP team set out on another transect of the Okavango Delta. Relying on their mekoro (traditional canoes) and skilled polers to navigate the 211 miles, the group will geolocate and record birds, wildlife and human impact. The information they gather will further support the need to protect this critical landscape, including the resident lions.

So do your part this World Lion Day and every day to protect the planet’s remaining lion populations by supporting National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative or by following the OWP on social media. And if you, or someone you know, is striving to preserve our amazing wildlife and wild places, whether lions or where they roam, consider applying for a National Geographic Society grant. Because, working together, we can and will create a healthier and more sustainable future for all living things.

African lion cubs with lioness. Duba, Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo by Beverly Joubert/National Geographic