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13 May 2020

Press Release

For immediate release

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New Kenyan lion count is the cat’s whiskers!

Unique census is a lifeline for Africa’s threatened predator.

Conservationists in Kenya are studying the whiskers of lions in the first ever nationwide census of this majestic big cat. They’re photographing the cats’ whisker spot patterns, which are as unique as human fingerprints, in an attempt to record as many lions as possible in the country.

Threats including loss of habitat and prey, and conflict with people, have wiped out almost half of Africa’s lions in just over 20 years [1]. As few as 20,000 wild lions are thought to be left in the world and rough estimates suggest only around 2,000 survive in Kenya [2].

The new census, partly funded by WWF-UK, will give conservationists a better understanding of lion numbers and movements, allowing populations to be more accurately monitored and safeguarded in the future. It includes taking high-resolution, close-up photographs of the lions’ faces, which are then analysed using computer software, to identify each animal by its whisker markings and other distinguishing features. This data will then be used to model lion populations in the country.

Dr Jenny Cousins, Regional Africa Conservation Manager at WWF-UK, said:

“Lions are really struggling. They’ve already disappeared from over 90% of their historic range and are locally extinct in 26 African countries, but we don’t know enough about Kenya’s lions. Initial census results suggest that while some lion populations seem stable, there are fewer in some areas than previously thought and if we don’t act urgently, these magnificent creatures could disappear completely. The full survey data will help us target our vital conservation work more effectively, providing a lifeline for this important predator.”

Lion prides roam across territories stretching for hundreds of square kilometres, depending on the availability of prey. As top predators in the food chain, they play a critical role in the ecosystem. They help balance populations of grazing animals such as zebra and wildebeest, which in turn helps keep grasslands healthy. However, shrinking territories mean lions are coming into conflict with humans more frequently.

Dr Yussuf Wato, Wildlife Programme Manager at WWF Kenya, said:

“Many protected areas are becoming increasingly isolated, as habitats connecting them are lost or fragmented. As the availability of wild prey declines, hungry lions predate the valuable livestock on which families depend for their livelihoods. The predators are often then killed in retaliation. We’re working closely with communities to conserve lion populations and stop the extinction of this iconic species.” 

When the big cats are killed, usually by spearing or poisoning, sometimes whole lion prides are wiped out. Cheap, readily available poison is widely used, which can also kill other animals in the food chain.

In tribes such as the Maasai, killing a lion was historically part of initiation into manhood, but perceptions  are slowly changing as communities begin to recognise the value of living with lions and how to live alongside them.

John, a Maasai pastoralist from Narok County, said:

“In the past, you could not become a warrior or be seen as brave until you killed a lion - it gave you pride. But we’ve come to realise that these animals generate a lot of income from tourism, and that partners such as WWF support our community development because of such animals. So even if a lion kills my livestock, now I just scare them away. I understand the value of these animals and I would prefer to preserve them not only for the present but for the next generation.”

WWF is supporting Kenya’s national lion census which is being carried out in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Wildlife Trust, and other local organisations including the Tsavo Trust. Further nationwide results are expected later this year, which will contribute to the first science-led assessment of lion numbers and distribution in the country. The results will help inform WWF’s lion conservation projects, aimed at protecting Africa’s most famous big cat. 


For further information please contact:

Lis Speight | Senior Media Manager at WWF:

T: +44 (0)1483 412241 | E:

Out of hours contact:

T: +44 (0) 7500 577620 | E:


WWF-UK has used funds raised by its lion adoptions to support the census and the development of Kenya’s new National Lion Strategy. The census research was also supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

[1] African lion populations are estimated to have declined by 43% between 1993 and 2014. Source: 

[2] It was estimated back in 2008 that Kenya was home to around 2,000 lions. However this figure is unreliable, as it was based on rough guesses and surveys that did not use a single methodology. This highlights the need for robust and standardised scientific methods to give a more accurate picture of lion populations in the country.

The new census has used two methods:

  • Intensive sightings-based field surveys of 77,595km2 to provide accurate estimates of lion numbers in all potential source populations. Teams of researchers are using various field methods to find and identify the lions, including identifying them from their unique whisker patterns. This data has been analysed using the Spatially Explicit Capture Recapture (SECR) method.
  • Interview based surveys of 580,367km2 with more than 3500 interviews with local experts and the data analysed using an occupancy model framework to assess distribution of lions and other large carnivores throughout Kenya. It is important to determine whether lions and other carnivores are present outside key source populations.

This is the first time that Kenya has standardised a lion survey method and applied it throughout the country – also a first ever in the African Continent. The standardisation of census method will eliminate the variation in population estimate error, enhance reliability of the data and allow results to be compared across various lion ranges in Kenya. This first systematic survey will provide a baseline figure of Kenya’s lion population and provide vital information on other potential source populations and connectivity between them. Assessing and monitoring lion populations allows managers to monitor lion numbers and assess whether conservation initiatives are having the desired effect, and to help plan future decisions.

With support from WWF, surveys have now been completed in the south of Kenya, including Nakuru National Park, the Maasai Mara Ecosystem, Amboseli Ecosystem, Nairobi National Park, the South Rift and Tsavo Ecosystem. Tens of thousands of kilometres have been driven and hundreds of lions have been identified in what is the biggest survey of its kind ever undertaken on lions. So far 1,097 interviews have been conducted with people who have good knowledge of wildlife in their areas. Most of the interviews have been conducted in northern, central and Southern Kenya. Plans are also underway to conduct over 2,000 more interviews in western and eastern Kenya in the future.

Long-term databases are being established and capacity built through a series of field and training workshops that will help to ensure that the survey evolves into long-term monitoring that will enable an evaluation of population and distribution trends.

Alongside the census, WWF is supporting the Mara Predator Conservation Programme in its work to encourage local communities to value and protect lions. A range of initiatives help reduce conflict with people and livestock and raise awareness about the plight of lions, their role in the ecosystem and their potential to generate much-needed income.

The programme works to:

  • Help local communities better understand the role and importance of predators and how to safely protect their livestock from lions, through initiatives including local radio campaigns.
  • Introduce human/lion conflict mitigation measures, such as improved ‘bomas’, or secure enclosures, and predator deterrent lights, to protect livestock at night.
  • Train wildlife rangers in rapid response techniques to recognise and tackle lion poisoning with antidotes.
  • Provide wildlife clubs in schools and field trips to national parks, to promote an appreciation of lions in the younger generation.

About WWF

WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature) is one of the world’s largest independent conservation organisations, active in nearly 100 countries. Our supporters – more than five million of them – are helping us to restore nature and to tackle the main causes of nature’s decline, particularly the food system and climate change. We’re fighting to ensure a world with thriving habitats and species, and to change hearts and minds so it becomes unacceptable to overuse our planet’s resources.

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