The Olympics are in full gear — a global event sure to capture our attention for weeks to come. But today I’d like to pause and turn our attention for a moment to one of nature’s greatest athletes: the lion.
Known for their earth shattering roars, giant paws and majestic manes, lions are often a sign of strength and power. Individually, they usually are quite imposing. Collectively though, they are a species in trouble.
Fortunately there are heroes on the ground working every day to save lions — many of them brave women scientists, explorers, and conservationists. You’ve probably heard of Beverly Joubert, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, conservationist, and award-winning photographer and documentary filmmaker (work she does alongside her husband and fellow Explorer-in-Residence, Dereck Joubert).
But as we pause to reflect on the fate of lions this World Lion Day, I’d like to introduce you to three amazing women who you may not have heard of — women whose work is leveraging the power of science, community, and ingenuity to stop the decline of these magnificent big cats:
Thandiwe’s passion for big cats began at a very young age, when she immersed herself in following Zambia’s wildlife as a way to heal from the tragedy of losing her parents. Today she conducts scientific research to help save lions in Zambia while simultaneously helping to shape a new generation of young conservationists. Her research focuses on investigating the influence of human behavior on wildlife demography.
Thandiwe tracks and identifies individual African lions in Game Management Areas (GMA) in eastern Zambia. There is a high level of human encroachment, poaching, and wire snaring in GMAs and her research is instrumental in guiding management of hunted species threatened by human activities. Her work towards protecting Zambia’s wildlife, specifically lion populations, has earned her a spot as one of National Geographic’s 2016 class of Emerging Explorers.
Born and raised in South Africa, Paola is an ecologist and conservationist dedicated to finding solutions that help lion populations recover while co-existing peacefully with the human communities in the Gorongosa National Park, located in neighboring Mozambique. She co-founded the Gorongosa Lion Project (Projecto Leoes da Gorongosa — PLG), the first science-based big cat conservation project in the history of the Park, which fosters collaboration between law enforcement and members of the community to reduce mortality of lions and prevent human-lion conflict. One in three lions in Gorongosa are either killed or maimed in poacher’s snares. PLG works to ensure that these lions recover to their fullest potential. The lions have GPS collars so they can be tracked every four hours and their rapid response veterinary unit makes sure lions are in good health, intervening if necessary. Paola and her team actively track more than 30 lions each week and in 14 months, they saved 10 lions. PLG also supports the first Mozambican women to ever work hands-on with lions in the wilderness: Celina Alfredo Dias and Domingas Aleixo, both born and raised in Vila Gorongosa.
Conservation biologist Shivani Bhalla is a fourth-generation Kenyan, dedicated to preventing the decline of lion populations. Since childhood, Shivani has had a passion for wildlife and dreamed of being a park ranger. She always knew that she would devote her life to conservation and when she moved to Samburu 11 years ago, there was no turning back. There are now fewer than 2,000 lions in Kenya, and they could vanish within two decades if habitat loss and conflict with humans continues.
In response, she founded Ewaso Lions, a conservation organization that uses scientific research and community outreach to promote coexistence between people and lions that share habitats. Their innovative community outreach programs involve young tribal warriors who spend more time than anyone else in wildlife areas, yet are rarely involved in decision making when it comes to wildlife conservation. Ewaso Lions founded a program in which the young warriors become active within their communities as wildlife ambassadors. Ewaso Lions is now seeing the highest number of lions in Samburu in the last 12 years.
Please join me in thanking these unsung conservationists by sharing their stories with your networks. And spread the word of lions’ plight — together we can invest in bold people and transformative ideas to save them and their fellow big cats for generations to come.