Paul Funston Interview

January 10, 2021

There are fewer than 20 000 wild lions in Africa. Two hundred years ago there were probably more than a million roaming across most of the continent. In the past 50 years this iconic wild animal has been eliminated from much of its former range. If this downward trend continues, eventually the species will survive only in a few well-managed parks.

But not if Dr Paul Funston has anything to do with it. He has worked for three decades in lion research, and few other people know as much about lions, or are as passionate about the species' survival. In this extensive interview, Paul answers many of the perplexing questions about the past, present and future of the lion.
Paul Funston and lion which has been tranquilized so that researchers can fit a tracking collar, in South Africa's Limpopo Province.

Paul Funston and lion which has been tranquilized so that researchers can fit a tracking collar, in South Africa's Limpopo Province.

For more than three decades, Paul Funston has worked with lions in Africa, in well-known parks like Kruger and Kgalagadi in South Africa, Hwange in Zimbabwe and Serengeti in Tanzania. But also in obscure, unknown wild places like Bénoué in Cameroon, Pendjari in Benin and most recently Luengue-Luiana in Angola, to name a few.

Paul current role is Lion Program Director for Panthera, the international large cat conservation organisation. The South African lion scientist is working not only to conserve existing populations, but also to restore lions into parks where they have been previously exterminated.

Paul’s research suggests that there could be at least 80 000 wild lions in Africa – a four-times increase on current numbers of 20 000, but only if parks are properly managed and governments commit to conservation. As a passionate conservationist and respected scientist, he’s determined to help make this happen.

 

Scott Ramsay: Lions have been decimated in Africa in the past 200 years. And their numbers continue to decline, even with all the media and conservation attention. Yet there seems to be no consensus on how many actually remain. Some researchers say 40 000, others say fewer than 20 000. Do we know for sure how many lions there are?

Paul Funston: Lots of numbers are cited but the truth is we actually don’t know for sure. Lion number estimates published thus far are based on assimilating different types of data.

There are actual registers of known individuals in places like the Serengeti Plains or parts of Hwange, for example, where we know the exact number. Then there are pure thumb-suck guestimates, and then there’s everything else in between.

The issue of lion numbers came to a head in the early 2000s with two key research works. That’s when the debate really started.

One was compiled by Philippe Chardonnet of International Foundation for Conservation of Wildlife. He’s a proponent of the trophy-hunting industry. His report suggested there were 38,000 wild lions left in Africa.

At the same time, Hans Bauer and Sarel van der Merwe of the African Lion Working Group estimated about 24,000 wild lions. They didn’t look closely at GMAs (game management areas) around the national parks, because hunters operated mostly there.

One thing is for sure, however. If you go back 150 years, before colonial hunting and displacement of indigenous people, there probably were over a million lions in Africa.

 

Panthera Lion Range Map

Panthera Lion Range Map

So there’s a big difference in research results for lion numbers. Why is that?

I was a co-author on a 2012 paper with Jason Riggio and ten other lion scientists, and we arrived at a figure of 32 000.

But one of the caveats in that paper was that we acknowledged the inclusion of some big guestimates. For example, in south eastern Angola, there was a guestimate of 1 200 lions. But we really did not have a clue as to how many there actually were.

It’s the same with big parts of Tanzania, Central African Republic and Somalia. Theoretically, these are really big chunks of extant lion range on a map, where people really want to believe there are lions, but if we’re realistic, there probably aren’t many.

So after we surveyed Angola more carefully, we whittled that estimate of 1 200 down to fewer than 50 in the whole country.

 

Fewer than 50 lions remaining in the whole of Angola?

Yes. We have to be realistic. Even in countries like Tanzania, the local experts will come up with much higher figures than is plausible.

Consider areas like Selous and Ruaha. Tanzania wants the world to think there are lots of lions in Tanzania because Tanzania wants to hunt lots of lions. And so in almost all the estimates from the country’s local experts, you’ll read that there are 4 000 to 5 000 lions in Ruaha and surrounding wildlife areas.

But in actual fact, there are probably no more than 800, a figure based on a recently-completed, and rigorous, survey completed by an independent researcher PhD student Paulo Strampelli.

So we have to be sceptical about lion numbers in areas which are hard to survey, or have never been surveyed.

 

How many lions do you personally think remain on the continent?

Based on all the research I’ve read, and on my own 30 years of research, realistically I don’t think there are more than 20,000 wild lions in Africa currently.

 

 

 

Paun Funston and local lion researchers, fitting a collar to tranquilised lion in Benin.

Paun Funston and local lion researchers, fitting a collar to tranquilised lion in Benin.

If lion numbers have dropped so much – from over a million a century ago perhaps, to fewer than 20 000 today, how can they only be listed as vulnerable by the IUCN? Surely they should be listed as Critically Endangered? I’ve never understood that?

That’s a good question. I’m a member of the IUCN panel that assesses the so-called Red List of species, so I’m directly involved in that.

There’s a number of criteria we use for assessing the status of lion numbers. The main one is the rate of change over three generations. We assume a generation to be seven years. So we look at 21-year timeframe and we compile as much data from as many sources as we can.

The last assessment was hugely contested, because when we looked at the data from three regions of Africa, we estimated a 95% decline over 21 years in West and Central Africa, a 56% decline for East Africa, but a 13% increase for lions in Southern Africa.

When you put all that data together, it works out to be a 43% decline over 21 years, which doesn’t technically meet the criteria for lion to be listed formally as endangered. Because to be listed as endangered requires a 50% or more reduction in population over each of the past three generations.

 

But with only 20 000 wild lions left in Africa, it makes no practical sense, surely? We all know lions are in big, big trouble in the wild? Practically, across Africa as a whole, surely they’re endangered?

Yes, you’re right. The species should be listed as endangered. The world needs to catch a wakeup. We can’t even fill a third of the seats in a rugby stadium with wild lions from Africa!

And what percentage of those 20,000 are large breeding males?

In a properly-managed protected area, there would be about 10 to 12 adult male lions per 100 lions. So if there are only 20 000 wild lions in total in Africa, you’re looking at just 2 000 adult males on the continent. And in some populations, because of other pressures, the numbers are even lower.

For example, in the desert lion population of north-west Namibia, we don’t know of one single male lion over the age of six years in the entire population of about 150 to 180 lions. Male lions are more regularly persecuted than females, and if a lion has any sort of mane, hunters are likely to go for it.

I am based in the Zambezi (formerly Caprivi) region of Namibia, and just a few years ago there wasn’t one single adult male lion in the records of about 80 odd lions. Fortunately, the conservation of lions in that area has improved dramatically because of the conflict mitigation work we are doing there with our partner the Kwando Carnivores Trust.

 

What has changed in the Zambezi region in Namibia?

Simply, the tolerance for lions has increased. When we started, people were antagonistic towards lions, and any adult male lion in particular. We see much less of that now.

We’ve really tried hard to build trust between conservationists and communities. We’ve shown local people that somebody really cares, that we will help them. A key solution was the building of more than 150 lion-proof bomas, which the locals use to keep their cattle safe at night.

Unless we help people to live with lions, we can’t blame them for wanting them dead. Let’s face it, if there was a hungry lion walking down your main road where you live, you’d also be scared that it will eat you or your child.

 

Yes, there seems to be quite a bit of hypocrisy when it comes to attitudes to predators.

Agreed. In Europe and the USA and Canada, predator numbers like wolves, mountain lions and bears are under huge pressure, and hunting quotas are often not based on scientific, ecological data.

Instead, the quotas are set at human tolerance levels. What numbers of predators will local people tolerate?

All over the world, it’s the same. You can only improve human tolerance of large predators by showing people the benefit of having predators around. It’s not about only taking the threat of predators away. You also have to show benefits.

Performance payment is important. If lion numbers go up in an area, you can link that to some type of compensation or financial reward. Locals will start to see the tangible financial and other benefits of co-existing and living with lions. That’s when things start to change.

 

But obviously there are other challenges in Africa, compared to say Europe or the US?

Sure. In Africa, the lion is extinct from 16 countries where it once existed, and in almost all those countries, civil war was – or continues to be – rife. Yes, there are several other factors which contribute to declining lion numbers, but civil war is often the nail in the coffin, because it brings poverty, despair and social strife, which leads to hunger and a desperate need for food and meat. Angola is a prime example of that downward spiral.

 

Poverty and lack of alternative jobs results in bushmeat hunting, which wipes out the prey base for lions, correct?

Yes, bushmeat hunting is the biggest threat to lions – and other wildlife for that matter.

There’s hunting for the pot, so that people can feed themselves or their families directly from what they catch.

But by far the biggest threat is the commercial form of bush meat hunting, where people start hunting for a profit-motive.

Then it becomes a business, and thousands of snares or traps are set. Increasingly, firearms are also used to shoot medium to large-sized ungulates. This meat is then supplied not only to locals, but to commercial meat markets in towns and cities.

So the landscape is raped of its wildlife, and the net result is that lions and other predators simply don’t have anything left to eat.

 

And what about lion bones and body parts for the Asian market?

Yes, lions are increasingly targeted by poachers, because of the huge demand in Asia for lion bones, teeth and claws.

Throughout much of Africa these days, there are increasing numbers of Chinese trading stores, often in the most remote areas. And they’ve all got links back to China, ready to make money off animal parts like ivory, rhino horn, and increasingly lion bones. These days, a bush meat hunter is targeting lions as much as any other animal.

Which is why political stability and law enforcement is so critical for conservation success. If the laws are enforced properly and the courts do their jobs, it’s less likely that criminal syndicates in the wildlife trade can operate in that country.

 

What about habitat loss as a threat?

Certainly, it’s a big contributor to loss of all wildlife. But with lions, it’s slightly nuanced, and this is where there could be hope for Africa’s large wild animals.

In that 2012 scientific paper produced by Jason Riggio and eleven other lion scientists (including me), we quantified the amount of savannah in Africa that was still vegetatively 100% intact, which theoretically could provide habitat for lions. This surface area of intact vegetation is actually much greater than many people think.

Then researcher Peter Lindsay and I calculated how much of that vegetation is still within a protected area or GMA. We then worked out how many lions could live in those areas, based only on a 50% carrying capacity of lions.

The final figure we came up with was about 80,000 lions. So Africa can still potentially hold up to four times the current number of lions – of course only if the protected areas are managed properly.

 

That’s actually quite hopeful, in theory, but what will be required to restore Africa’s parks to such a degree?

For starters, you need political will. Governments must be committed to their parks and to conservation. But you also need money, obviously. Running parks is hugely expensive, and governments often don’t have the necessary cash.

 

Paul Funston working with rangers in Amboseli, Kenya

Paul Funston working with rangers in Amboseli, Kenya

What sort of financial resources are required?

When you’re spending close to $US 1000 per square km per year, you’re able to protect 90-100% of the wildlife you should have in that area.

But when you drop down to $US 200-300, generally your wildlife is at only 50% of potential ecological capacity.

And when that figure drops further to between $US50 and US$100, you’ve probably lost 95% of your wildlife and all the larger species are critically endangered, or locally extinct.

 

Which parts of Africa are spending the necessary cash?

If you divide Africa into southern, eastern, central and west, there are hugely divergent budgets for conservation.

In southern Africa, governments and NGOs are spending around about US$ 500-800 per square km, per year, on their parks.

This is still below the ideal figure of US$ 800-1000, and if you’ve got rhinos in your parks, you need to push that figure up to $3,000 per square km to conserve rhinos effectively in the same space.

Some parts of Kruger are probably sitting at about US$2 000 per square kilometre, purely because of all the intensive rhino protection. A place like Kruger is way ahead of other African national parks in terms of investing in protection, but it has lost more than 75% of its rhinos in the last decade, and now it’s lions are being poached.

In east Africa, and maybe one or two places in central west Africa, they’re spending about US$200 to 300 per square kilometre.

Through much of west, north and central Africa, governments are spending between $US50 to 100 per square km per year (with some exceptions like those parks run by African Parks). With so little funding, it’s no surprise they’ve lost almost all their large wildlife, including lions.

 

How much money would be required annually to protect properly those key parks in Africa that could hold 80 000 lions across the continent?

Peter Lindsay and I worked out that there are sixty-six protected areas in Africa where lions still occur. And it would cost US$2 billion per year to ensure that these parks are managed professionally so that there is 50% carrying capacity of its wildlife.

Currently, the national governments and other NGOs like African Parks are spending a combined figure of about US$360 million, which is probably one-sixth to one-fifth of that ideal figure. This is not nearly enough to do a proper job of park conservation.

 

Two billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, of course…

No, it’s actually not in the greater scheme of things. It’s just a drop in the ocean. Aid to Africa is between US$60 and US$100 billion per year.

What if we used a percentage of this aid to protect landscapes, wildlife AND ensure the social and environmental security of rural people? There is a lot of climate change funding that could be directed to organisations that are protecting large landscapes in Africa.

Nature Journal recently published research that showed that the Congo jungle now sequesters more carbon than the Amazon, because the Amazon has been deforested so much. The grasslands of Africa are also massive carbon sequesters, and take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere.

So with big funding, you can contribute positively to climate change, by protecting natural landscapes, driving wildlife restoration, as well as employment and community development through safari tourism, or wildlife related industries.

Despite transformation because of agriculture and urban growth, Africa still has massive intact landscapes already making a huge difference to carbon sequestration, which will become hugely important in a few years if we want to counter climate change.

Africa has the intact landscapes. The west and Asia have the funding to protect them. It’s an obvious, natural partnership that can benefit the entire planet.

 

So let’s say the funding arrived. As a lion expert, which parks or regions in Africa would you focus your funding on?

Currently there are only five or six areas in Africa that have more than 1 000 wild lions. These places must be prioritised, to protect the landscapes – and the lions and other animals – that are already there.

Tanzania has three major lion areas. The Serengeti and the Rift Valley down to Lake Manyara, and also the Ruaha and Rungwa landscapes. And there’s also the Selous and Nyasa system extending into Mozambique that may have around 3 000 lions.

The most secure lion population currently, from a protection point of view, is probably Kruger and surrounding private reserves in South Africa, joined with the Gonarezhou and Save Valley population in Zimbabwe. That’s about 2 500 lions in total.

Sadly, almost all the lions in Parque Nacional de Limpopo on the Mozambican side of Kruger have been poached out. We’ve been running a project there for nine years and in 2019 we pulled out. It was too great a risk. If we left our staff on the ground there, someone would have been killed.

To give you an idea of the catastrophic wildlife decline in Parque Nacional de Limpopo, when our researchers Kris Everatt started his lion study in 2011, there were over 100 lions there.

When we pulled him out in 2019, there were only 12 lions. That’s because the park is a hotspot for crime syndicates with very strong links to the Asian trade in animal parts. They’re targeting rhinos in Kruger, and along the way, poisoning and snaring lions too. Poachers are shooting lions quicker than we can protect them.

The next really important lion population is the Kavango-Zambezi landscape, where we estimate about 3 000 wild lions, mainly in the southern half. For example, in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the lions are doing pretty well, with about 500 wild lions.

In northern Botswana, the Okavango River system and all the adjoining GMAs together have about 2,500 lions. If we do things properly, there’s a very realistic chance for KAZA to have 6 000 lions, which will be the single biggest lion area in Africa. Like Kruger, it’s one of the better-resourced protected area complexes in Africa.

 

Which are the other major lion areas that may not have 1 000 lions, but are still important for conservation of the species?

In Namibia, the Kunene-Etosha population is significant too with about 600 to 800 lions. And the Luangwa parks in Zambia have similar numbers. The Kalahari system is important also, with about 600 lions. That’s the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, linked to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve’s population.

What’s remarkable about Kunene-Etosha systems is that an estimated 8% of the lions that occur in that system are killed every single year, either by farmers themselves, or by parks government officials who euthanize so-called “problem-causing” lions.

But the lions are breeding at their near-maximum growth rate, because of artificial waterholes and presence of wild prey and domestic livestock. So despite the 8% loss ever year, the population remains relatively stable. That’s about the maximum that you can pressure a lion population without it collapsing.

In the Kalahari we are losing about 8% of the lions every single year to conflict on the boundary, but there too the population remains stable for now.

As long as you’re not losing too many key adult breeding females, the population is likely to be able to resist some of the threats. It’s only when the cumulative effect of the threats is too great and you have too many adult females dying that the population starts to edge downwards.

 

What about west and central Africa? Which are the significant lion populations?

In west Africa the most significant population is in the Pendjari Park W Complex, where the borders of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger join. African Parks is part of that system. And that protected area has continued to support between 200 and 300 lions for some time, which is very important for lion genetic health in the region.

Chinko National Park in Central African Republic is also under protection by African Parks, so one would hope that the lions there are doing well, and remain connected to the Cameroonian lions in Bénoué National Park. If managed properly, that area could be a hub for lion conservation in the future.

Going further west, 3 000km away in Senegal, is Niokolo-Koba National Park. Panthera has actually taken on a co-management role in that park, much like African Parks does elsewhere, because it’s the extreme western distribution not only of the lion, but of the chimpanzee, the wild dog and elephant too.

Sadly, it’s been heavily depleted. We estimate fewer than 20 lions, fewer than 20 elephants, a handful of wild dogs, some chimps. But they’re still there and they are the genetic representation of that most Western population for all those species. So it’s very important but the numbers are tiny.

 

What about Gabon? They have a comprehensive national park system?

Gabon is an interesting case. The lion was thought to be extinct in Gabon by about 20 years ago. There were no lions in any of the surveys back then. Then all of a sudden the government created this wonderful network of protected areas in the country. They surveyed extensively again, but no sign of lion anywhere.

But about three years ago, a male lion pitched up in Batéké Plateau National Park and apparently he still seems to hang around there. He’s all on his own. We’ve actually managed to snag some hair samples from him and had them genetically analysed. He’s actually more of a southern African lion than a central African lion.

Which makes sense because Batéké is the most northern expression of the Kalahari Sand system. It’s a remarkable place, and very different to the rest of Gabon. If we can create a transfrontier conservation area there with Republic of Congo, it will help a lot.

We’re going to translocate some lions from the Okavango or from the Etosha area and put them up there. We’ve got funding to get a small breeding population going in Batéké, as much for Gabon’s national pride as it is for conservation.

 

A few countries have already shown that lions can be reintroduced, right?

Yes, we have to show that we can reverse the downward trend of lions in Africa. Much like African Parks have done in Malawi, where the lion had been extinguished, but because of conservation efforts, lions are now doing well in the park system.

Lions were also brought back to the Rwanda so we know it can be done. It’s technically feasible – and if a park is able to reintroduce lions, it means there has to be a lot of other management tools in place first, which is good for all the other species too.

Angola needs to follow the same route. As does Gabon. A lot of these countries have got tremendous potential. They’ve got lots of intact habitat, and the wild animals will all come back if we just give them a bit of space and a bit of protection.

And we’ve got to change the perception of visiting a country like Gabon or Republic of Congo. They’re safer to visit than South Africa! Really amazing countries, but the message needs to be spread. The countries tourism departments need to do a much better public relations job.

 

With fewer than 20 000 wild lions on the continent, is hunting still relevant as a conservation strategy? Is there a place for it these days? Can it make a difference?

Things have changed over the past two decades. Back then, countries like Tanzania were putting over 300 lions a year on hunting quota. Zambia was hunting the lion very intensively.

The lion was never that intensively hunted in Botswana but you could argue that in some places the quotas were too high.

Zimbabwe has a tremendous conservation legacy, but they’ve probably hunted too many of all species in the past. You can’t find a trophy size elephant bull or buffalo in the Zambezi valley anymore. They only occur in Gonarezhou in the south-east these days.

So most of countries have pulled back a little from trophy hunting. There’s big international pressure and indignation around the topic.

Tanzania apparently hunts fewer than 50 lions every year now, and don’t allow the trophy to leave the country if it’s under six years of age.

Zambia did quite a lot by reducing quotas, then having a national moratorium. Then they started hunting again with low quotas, but they don’t follow best practise, and they still hunt under-age lions, which is a big issue.

Zimbabwe has been more disciplined. They hunt about 30 to 40 lions per year, and they usually stick to males older than 6 years.

 

But does hunting actually make a difference to conservation of these iconic species like lions (and elephants etc)?

The trophy hunting areas in Africa are usually the large Game Management Areas (GMAs) or Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) around the national parks. And the vast majority of them are completely depleted of wildlife compared to where they were 30 years ago.

This implies that trophy hunting has failed to protect the wildlife. It hasn’t stood the test of time and proven itself to be beneficial for conservation.

But I’m actually sympathetic to countries like Tanzania and Zambia. The hunting blocks were imposed on the landscapes by colonial powers so rich white people could hunt.

Then those countries become independent, and the locals now have to look after a park and wildlife landscape that comprises 30% or more of their country. How are those governments ever going to finance conservation on so much of the land? Conservation is a legacy of the colonial past.

So in those areas where there is little funding for conservation, hunting is a necessary evil. Without hunting, good or bad, that land is going to be turned into agriculture or cattle areas, and there’ll be no habitat left at all.

And some places are absolutely not going to work as photo safari areas. If you go into the middle of Kafue in Zambia into the miombo woodland, tourists are going to hate it. It’s hot, it’s dry, there are not a lot of animals naturally occurring anyway, and there are millions of tsetse flies that will eat you alive. Very few tourists are up for that. We have to be practical and sensible.

 

Why is the minimum age for hunting lions six years? That seems particularly young to me, especially in the case of a lion like Cecil. He was 13 when he was shot, but he was dominating his territory and holding his pride of females, and mating and producing cubs?

That’s a vexing question, and yes, six is probably too young for most African lions.

The minimum age of 6 years comes from a Serengeti study where the habitat is very fertile, with masses of prey animals.

The maths showed that the lion population of the Serengeti would remain stable if they hunted every lion over the age of 6 years. But lions also breed much younger in the Serengeti than most other places in Africa. The females have a much shorter inter-birth interval, there’s far more prey to eat etc.

But of course, this doesn’t apply to most lion populations in Africa where conditions are much harsher. Think of lions in less productive areas of Africa.

 

So is there anything being done to increase the lower age limit?

Yes, an age limit of six years isn’t sustainable for Africa’s lions. In Zambia there’s new research showing that only lions over the age of eight should be hunted. And lions should be hunted only every second year. It’s still not ideal, but it’s much better.

We will need to up the age limit across the continent. Of course there’s resistance from hunters and governments, because they can make more money if they hunt as many as possible, regardless of the age.

What we want is a hunting system that allows every single male the opportunity to mature as normal, to breed at a normal age, and to make sure that his first and probably most important generation of offspring in his life is brought through to an age at which it can survive.

Let’s take the Kruger lions. Most lions there are not going to reach breeding age until they are between 5 and 6. So let’s assume that most lions are going to have their first cubs at 5 and a half. We need to add about 36 months to that, which is the three years it takes for cubs to mature. Which would mean that the minimum age to hunt a male lion is 8 years roughly.

 

The pressure on male lions is huge, not only from hunters, but from communities and people who live on the edges of the parks. As I travel around Africa doing my photography and research, I see so few very large, big-maned lions…

Yes, it’s rare to go into protected areas and see big adult males. I travel a lot and I enjoy those safari areas where you’ve got tourism on the edge of a protected area system. When I go to those sorts of areas, which I try to do as often as I can, I ask the local guides: How many adult females are in the local pride? Sadly, the answer is almost invariably just two. It’s not three, four or five, like there were a few years ago. There is continual shrinkage of lion prides.

I don’t even ask how many big-maned adult males there are, because I don’t want to hear the answer. There are usually none.

In the Wilderness Safaris concession in Hwange in Zimbabwe, for example, the pride males are often hunted or snared before they’re five years old. Tourists pay these high prices to stay at the fancy lodges but they’re oblivious to what’s going on. The lions they’re seeing are not big adult males. The lions are only just getting into their adulthood when they get taken out.

There are exceptions, of course, such as Cecil and Jericho. Their pride is now protected by Humba and Netsai. Both are set to be as famous as Ceci, but at just over six year of age they are both vulnerable and may be targeted by hunters like Cecil was.

It’s appalling to go to some of the best and most expensive safari destinations in the world, and seeing lions that aren’t “really” lions. I don’t want to slate these fantastic conservation tourism organisations at all. That’s not my point. My point is that there just aren’t that many big boys around anymore, and there is not enough concern by governments for these big male lions which are actually national treasures.

 

So where would you go now in Africa to see the really big boys? The big male lions that are ten or eleven years old, and dominating the landscape?

There’s only three places to go in Africa. The Serengeti, Kruger Park and the Okavango delta. Those populations have still got truly magnificent male lions in them. I can show you a photograph of a coalition that was photographed at Vumbura in the Wilderness Safaris area in the Okavango. Those are the best places in Africa for big lions. Occasionally a big boy pitches up on Busanga Plains in Kafue but usually they’re scrawny.

 

Where did your love for wildlife – and lions – come from?

I was born in Durban, and grew up in Cape Town, then Joburg, and my father used to take us to Kruger Park up to four times a year, as often as he could afford to take us as a family. Or we’d go to Cape Vidal on the Maputaland coast. Both are like perfection to me.

Right through high school, and through university, I wanted to be an ecologist working in Kruger Park. That’s what I wanted to be, at the interface between conservation practice – what the rangers were doing – and what the science was indicating should be done.

So I did my master’s degree, focusing of ecology on Cape buffalo in Kruger, and during 1991/2, there was a big drought. So lions were killing hundreds of the buffalo.

That’s when I started studying lions. I did my PhD in Kruger, and then went on to Kgalagadi on contract, and worked with the legendary Dr Gus Mills. Then I lectured at Pretoria University for eleven years in Game Ranch Management, but spent all my spare time travelling into west, central and east Africa to help PhD students who were researching lions.

Whenever somebody wanted to start a PhD lion study, whether a Cameroonian, Beninese or Kenyan student, and they wanted to put GPS radio collars on lions my colleague, Dr Hans de Jong in the Netherlands would email me and say, “Paul, we’ve got five collars that need to go on lions and in Bénoué National Park in Cameroon. Will you come and do it?”

Of course! And inevitably, someone would say to me, “Oh, you’re going to Bénoué, you won’t find any lions there, they’ve all been poached out.” It was the same comment wherever I went in central and west Africa.

But wherever I went, I’d manage to find lions. Perhaps it’s just my dogged, stubborn streak! And then I’d spend my consultancy money to go fishing in Gabon on the way back!

I’ve been at Panthera as the Lion Program and Southern African regional director now for the past eight years. I’ve been working on lions for 31 years now!

 

You’ve spent so much time researching lions, and being in their company, What’s your most memorable moment with lions?

I’ve had so many across Africa, but I’ll never forget once when I was in Kruger Park. I was following four dispersing male lions into a new territory. One night, they settled on a koppie under the full moon to survey their new territory. I drove up to join these big boys.

I will never forget it what followed. Once my eyes had accustomed to the dark, I could see the bush for miles around. As they were resting in a sphynx-like, regal pose not 20m away from me, I slipped out of the Land Rover and sat on the ground next to the car watching them.

It was not long before they started roaring, sending their thunderous vibrations into the African night. I’ve been fortunate to have many special moments in pristine nature, but none like this one. I consider it the finest hour of my life and it made me even more determined, resolute and committed to save Africa’s lions and wild spaces. I want to ensure that the roar of lions will forever and always break the stillness of the night air in Africa.

Paul Funston in his early days, tracking lions in Kruger, South Africa

Paul Funston in his early days, tracking lions in Kruger, South Africa

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