Today is World Lion Day, a holiday to celebrate the majestic King of the Jungle and to raise awareness for saving the big cats from extinction.
The lion has been under threat of poachers for centuries, as well as growing human populations in Africa and Asia. National Geographic notes that scientists estimate that there could be as few as 20,000 lions left in the wild in Africa.
Leonardo DiCaprio also released a video to celebrate World Lion Day and promote the Lion Recovery Fund.
Here’s what you need to know about World Lion Day and lions.
1. World Lion Day Was Founded By an Independent Campaign to Save the Animals
World Lion Day is an independent campaign that aims to raise awareness for the decreasing lion populations and to save these beautiful creatures.
“World Lion Day is the first global campaign to celebrate the importance of the lion worldwide. Since the dawn of man the lion has played an integral role in our lives: symbolically, religiously, culturally, economically and biologically. To lose the lion from our world would be to lose part of our global heritage,” reads a statement on the campaign’s website.
2. It’s Estimated That Less Than 20,000 Lions Remain in Africa
As National Geographic reports, there were as many as 450,000 lions in the wild in the 1940s. Today, scientists estimate that there are as little as 20,000 lions left in the wild in Africa.
In October 2015, The New York Times reported that a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal estimates that Africa’s lion population will shrink by half again in the next two decades if nothing is done to stop it.
“We are losing all the populations which are characteristic of the pristine view of lions,” Oxford University lion researcher Hans Bauer told the Times. “Lions roaming free, hunting wildlife across the savanna.”
Researchers blame the decrease in the population on the encroaching human populations in Africa, as well as poorly regulated trophy hunting. Cecil the Lion‘s death in 2015 certainly raised awareness of the issue, but lion experts note that it is common in countries riddled with corruption.
“Wildlife is under so much pressure,” Brian Child, a conservation economist at the University of Florida, told the Times in 2015. “If we don’t get past ideology and get down to what works, we’re going to lose the whole lot.”
3. The U.S. Didn’t Grant Lions Protection Under the Endangered Species Act Until 2015
It wasn’t until after the outrage sparked by Cecil The Lion’s death in 2015 that the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service finally announced that two lion subspecies will be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage,” Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement. “If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it’s up to all of us – not just the people of Africa and India – to take action.”
Although the protection doesn’t make it illegal to bring in “sports” hunting trophies from Africa, Ashe told Scientific American that it does “raise the bar significantly” on what is allowed.
Hunters will need permits to prove that the trophy was “legally obtained in range countries as part of a scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild.”
“Sustainable trophy hunting as part of a well-managed conservation program can and does contribute to the survival of the species in the wild, providing real incentives to oppose poaching and conserve lion populations,” Ashe explained. “Implementing a permit requirement will give us the authority we need to work with African countries to help them improve their lion management programs.”
4. Conservation Efforts in India Are Helping the Asiatic Lion Population Grow
While the future of Africa’s lions are in danger, PBS reported in 2016 that conservation efforts in India are helping the population of the Asiatic Lion (panthera leo persica) grow.
Until the 17th Century, the lions could be found as far west as Palestine and throughout the Middle East. But today, their population almost entirely in the state of Gujarat in West India. In the early 1900s, the ruler at the time discovered that only 12 lions survived in the Gir Forest. He declared it a protected area, and it Became a national park officially in 1965.
In 1936, a census found that there were 150 lions. The 2015 census found 523 lions living in the forest. Since 2010, the population has grown by 27 percent, proving that conservation efforts have worked.
The Asiatic Lions do look similar to African lions, but there are some key differences. As Our Endangered World notes, they live in prides, but are usually smaller and only include two to five females. They eat much smaller animals than African lions.
5. The American Lion Existed During Prehistoric Times
While we mostly think of lions as a African animals, a species of lion did exist in America during prehistoric times. The Panthera leo atrox existed during the Pleistocene epoch (340,000 to 11,000 years ago.
According to ThoughtCo., the American Lion measured up to 13 feet long and weighed 1,000 pounds. It lived in the North American plains and some scientists think it might have actually been a species of jaguar or tiger.
The Cave Lion also lived in North America and went extinct 12,400 years ago. These were depicted in cave paintings as having stripes or collar fluff. They weighed between 700 and 800 pounds.