Are Lions Endangered?

The mighty lion is a deceptive icon of strength and power. In reality, lion numbers are in steep decline. So are lions endangered? And if so, what can be done to stop lions going extinct?

Big Cats Nature
22 April 2022

There are estimated to be between 23,000 and 39,000 mature lions remaining in the wild, a number that is in steep decline. Today, lions roam just 8% of the places where they once did. So are lions endangered? The answer is a complex one, but even more difficult is finding solutions to stop lions going extinct.

Please note that this article contains themes which some of our audience may find distressing.

IUCN Red List Status: Endangered Lions?

A lion at dusk (Photo: Julie Gautier-Winther via iStock)

In seeking an answer to the question ‘are lions endangered’, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an invaluable source of information. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classifies animals into 8 different threat levels, which are, in ascending order of threat:

  • Least Concern
  • Near Threatened
  • Vulnerable
  • Endangered
  • Critically Endangered
  • Extinct in the Wild
  • Extinct

There are additional categories for data deficiency and unevaluated species. So, what does the term ‘endangered’ mean in this context? And are there endangered lions?

To be endangered, lions would have to be facing a “very high risk” of extinction in the wild, as determined by a complex set of criteria. Alternatively, they’d be classified as vulnerable if facing a “high risk” of extinction, the omission of the word “very” rendering it marginally less dire.

As last assessed in 2014, the global status of the lion species (Panthera leo) is not classed as endangered. It is instead categorised as vulnerable under criteria A2abcd. This means a population size reduction of over 30% over the last 10 years, or three generations, whichever is longer. To qualify under this criteria, the reduction or its causes may be unexplained, ongoing or may be irreversible. IUCN figures suggest that global lion numbers declined approximately 43% between 1993 and 2014.

However, this apparent answer is something of an oversimplification. The reason for this is that it generalises lions across the globe, not accounting for geographic disparity.

Endangered Lion Species - A Masked Dichotomy

Beautiful lion looking towards the sun (Photo: Anca_Liliana via iStock)

According to the IUCN, the global classification of lions between 1993 and 2014 “masks a dichotomy” between lion numbers overall and acute regional differences. When drilled down to a regional level, there are various endangered lion species or subspecies.

Endangered Lion Species - India

An endangered Asian Lion in Gir Forest at Sasan Gir, Gujarat, India (Photo: kuntalpaul via iStock)

India has one of the world’s only populations of Asiatic lions. These are mainly found in Guajarat’s Gir Forest National Park, although there has been some expansion into the surrounding areas. The Asian lion is technically an endangered lion species on the Red List entry. However, in all other metrics, the picture is more positive. In fact, the numbers of lions in India increased by 29% between 2015 and 2020, rising from 523 to 674.

Endangered Lion Species - Africa

Big male African lion (Photo: EcoPic via iStock)

It has always been difficult to assess lion endangerment in Africa, particularly as there are no official systems in place to do so. Depending on the country in question, endangered lion estimates may be only extremely rough guides. Nevertheless, the numbers available are sobering. In 1950, there were thought to be half a million lions on the continent. By the early 90s this was down to 100,000. Today, even the most optimistic figures place the population at no more than 30,000, but it’s believed to be closer to 20,000.

There is a distinct split across Africa regarding lion populations. For example, many African countries are nearing the possibility of lions going extinct and these would be listed as Critically Endangered lions. Meanwhile, lions are already completely extinct across most of North Africa. Overall, most of Africa’s extant populations suffered a 60% decrease between 1993 and 2014.

By contrast, four southern African countries, namely Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, actually saw an increase of 12% in lions during the same period. Indeed, lions in South Africa qualify for the Least Concern category. All of this averages out to create the masking effect alluded to above.

Threats to Survival

Viewing lions on a Safari in South Africa (Photo: t:RudiHulshof via iStock)

So what’s contributing to lions going extinct? Some of it can be attributed to natural factors, such as disease. However, by far the greatest threat to lions is humans. Whether directly or indirectly, human beings have been responsible for the depletion of the species in myriad ways.

Hunting and Poaching

Lion on a rock silhouette (Photo: Wizard-Works via iStock)

By far the greatest factors in the increase in endangered lions are hunting and poaching. There are a variety of purposes for such activities, from preemptive protection of livestock and people, to ritual killings or illegal trade of lion bones and trophy hunting. However, much lion endangerment is a byproduct of other human activity.

Habitat Loss & Human Conflict

African lion male crossing a river (Photo: Utopia_88 via iStock)

Agriculture and expanding settlement are just two of the contributors to the 75% reduction in available lion habitat over the past century. Meanwhile, some lion habitats have been blighted by war, rendering them untenable.

Prey depletion

Mature male lion revenge roaring (Photo: Serge_Vero via iStock)

Whether due to climate change or the demands of the bushmeat trade, available prey has dramatically reduced, and with it lions’ food sources. As their prey is removed, lions kill humans more frequently and incur revenge attacks, killing yet more lions.

Lions Going Extinct Throughout History

There are lots of examples of extinct lion species from prehistory, and even Bronze Age European lions. But there are also more modern examples. Whilst efforts are made to protect extant species of lions, for many it is already too late.

Lions occupy a mere fraction of the habitats they once did, with many types becoming extinct in the process. The extinction of lions in North Africa is relatively recent. The last Barbary Lion, formerly from this region, is believed to have been killed in either 1922 or 1942.

What’s more, the general trend is a dramatic decline. It’s thought that, by 2035, lion numbers will be half what they were in 2015, bringing lions close to extinction. The only place where lion numbers have increased is in a handful of southern African countries, and even then mostly in fenced areas.

Is it Possible to Prevent Lions Going Extinct?

Walking off into the sunset (Photo: Shams via iStock)

After all the bad news, there is a glimmer of hope for vulnerable and endangered lions. Conservation efforts are being made to protect and even increase lion populations. A number of African nations have created Lion Conservation Action Plans, which aim to tackle the issue from multiple angles. Additionally, there are now numerous protected areas where lions can live, including India’s success story in Gir. As for the future, this will depend on funding and the willingness of governments to act. The IUCN recommends a range of steps, including managing water sources, local education and species reintroduction.

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