A booming human population, widespread habitat destruction and growing livestock numbers mean the animal that once graced Ethiopia’s flag — and is still a potent symbol for Rastafarians through the song ‘Iron Lion Zion’ — is on the wane.
They live on in only small pockets of the Horn of Africa nation, and conservationists warn that without action, all that will remain of the powerful creatures are the stone sculptures and statues dotted in the flourishing capital, Addis Ababa.
“There were lions everywhere in Ethiopia, but their habitat is shrinking,” said Zelealem Tefera, country head of the Born Free Foundation, a conservation group.
“Human settlements are expanding, prey is disappearing and there is nothing to eat for the lions,” he said.
In decline across Africa, lions have been put on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of threatened species, but Ethiopia’s rare lions — seen as unique though debate continues over their DNA — are even more vulnerable.
In the past few decades they have disappeared from much of Ethiopia. With 96 million people, it is Africa’s second most populous nation, and the number is growing by some two million people every year.
Conservationists estimate there are, at most, 1,000 lions left. They are to be found mainly in remote areas bordering the war-torn countries of South Sudan and Somalia, as well as in a handful of national parks in the centre and east.
“The black-maned lion is very unique and only found in a few locations in Ethiopia,” Zelealem said.
“It makes them very important in our culture. I don’t think the lion population will completely disappear from Ethiopia in the coming few years, but if we don’t protect their habitat there is no reason why this couldn’t happen,” he said.