Are Fences the Last, Best Hope for African Lions?

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 12, 2013 17

Less than 30,000 African lions remain in just 25 percent of their original natural habitat. ©Patrick J. Endres

“Good fences make good neighbors” is a mid-17th-century proverb, popularized by author Robert Frost in his 1914 poem “Mending Wall.” According to a new report published last week, that may just be the case—especially if your neighbors are lions.

In the next 20 to 40 years, it’s estimated that nearly half of Africa’s wild lion populations will reach near-extinction unless urgent conservation measures are taken. With fewer than 30,000 African lions remaining in just 25 percent of their original natural habitat, fencing them in—and fencing humans out—may be their best and only hope for survival.

But given lions’ need to hunt migratory prey, the high cost of fencing and our psychological need for wide, open vistas, is containing them the best solution?

Fences protect both sides of the line

A lion-proof fence is also elephant-proof, so a well-designed fencing policy would protect both. ©Eric Rock

Fencing has always been anathema to most conservationists and environmentalists. But in his new report published online in the scientific journal Ecology Letters on March 5, 2013, Craig Packer, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota, concludes that both African lions and villagers would benefit from fences.

For the study, titled Conserving Large Carnivores: Dollars and Fence, Packer and his colleagues compared lion population densities and management practices across 42 sites in 11 African countries. The researchers found that conservation costs were lower and lion population sizes and densities were greater in reserves secured by wildlife-proof fences, compared to unfenced ecosystems. In the unfenced reserves, lions were subject to a higher degree of threats from human communities—including retaliatory killing by herders—habitat loss and fragmentation, and overhunting of lion prey.

In the fenced reserves, lions were maintained at 80 percent of their potential population capacity on annual management budgets of about $500 per square kilometer (0.39 square miles), while unfenced populations required an average of $2,000 per square kilometer each year to remain at just 50 percent of their capacity.

The offense of fences

Most African governments, however, don’t have the money to invest in expensive fencing projects. Fences can cost up to $3,000 per kilometer (0.62 miles) to install. Fencing around very large areas, such as the 17,000-square-mile Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania (a popular destination for African safaris), which is home to the largest remaining lion population in the world, would cost about $30 million. And that’s just the beginning of the obstacles a fence presents. If a small lion population is enclosed, let’s say, managers would need to ensure genetic diversity by introducing new animals every few years. And if the lions of a particular population make their living by pursuing migratory prey such as wildebeest, fences would be impractical.

Fences would be impractical for lions that pursue migratory prey, such as wildebeest. ©Patrick J. Endres

Some, such as one of the study’s co-authors, Luke Hunter of Panthera, a conservation organization based in New York City, believe that buffer zones to separate humans and lions or more kinds of conflict mitigation initiatives, rather than fences, should be considered. But while this particular approach has done well in Kenya, Packer says it is only feasible when lions are relatively scarce. Protecting core reserves and buffer zones for all lions would be more expensive than fencing. Nairobi National Park in Kenya is an example of an unfenced park where lions are doing relatively well, but such places must spend much more money. Antipoaching patrols and other management costs in unfenced parks can cost more than $2,000 per square kilometer per year while fostering only half the number of possible lions. In contrast, a fenced reserve can attain 80 percent of its maximum population density at a quarter of the cost. The difference could be critical for the future of lions; Packer’s study found that almost half of unfenced lion populations could plummet to less than 10 percent of their potential size over the next two to four decades.

In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost also writes,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

While the thought of putting more fences around Africa’s incredible wild areas is not pleasing to our psyches, we may have little choice. Whether by fencing or by some alternative physical boundary, such as intensely managed buffer zones, it is clear that separating lion and human populations will be essential for lions’ survival.

Do you think that conservationists need to accept the fact that the days of seeing a limitless vista of unspoiled African savanna are gone forever? As human communities expand, are fences now unequivocally necessary to protect African wildlife?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. David Hammant March 21, 2013 at 10:23 am - Reply

    Wild life – to meddle or not to meddle.

    Unfortunately human expectations are at odds with the survival of truly wild places. The human being expects to be able to overpopulate, strip resources, pollute and destroy without limit or control, driven by greed. Rhinos are being exterminated because Asians believe that rhino horn is good for them (they may as well chew their own fingernails, they are made of the same stuff). Asian ‘medicine’ causes the tiger population to be poached again for some fairy tale benefit. It would be good to think you could educate these people as the richer they get the more the demand for these ‘medicinal’ products will arise.

    Those areas where man has not as yet wrecked completely are now having to be farmed for nature as without the payback of tourism the land will quickly be allocated to a more man useful function like palm oil plantations or something equally useful.

    It’s not just the headline species either. As more and more of the environment is destroyed irreplaceable species are threatened. As an example Madagascar, where 80% of the animal species are unique, and species we don’t even know anything about are being driven to extinction. In the Amazon great swathes of rainforest are being hacked down annually to feed our greed. I could go on but the list is too extensive.

    All this equals one thing; managing what is left, in order to try to preserve something rather than letting it just vanish. It’s unfortunate, as anyone who has been to Africa in recent years will experience, joining the circus of safari trucks around a lion sighting, but it may be the only way it will work.

    Now to preserve these endangered species we need to act collectively because as long as the witch doctors in Asia carry on using these ‘remedies’ the problem will continue. Deal with them as the source of the problem and the poaching stops as there is no money in it.

    • michael nush April 3, 2013 at 11:07 am - Reply

      So true about wildlife and the effects of poaching on cetain animals. If proper education could be passed on to the Asian people certain species would not be threatened. 95% of the damage occurs,from Asian countries and there beliefs. Seems like Asian counties are the most uneducated and have the least sympothy for wildlife in general. Also, the African nations need stronger jail terms for poachers, 10 yrs minimal, maybe even death penalty.

  2. Winnie Mukami March 21, 2013 at 10:19 am - Reply

    I think you have to be more specific, you cannot make a sweeping and alarming statement like”the wide, open African savannas maybe over” Each country has a unique challenge in protecting their lions, and each is doing something different. E.g. What South Africa is doing is not necessarily what Tanzania is doing.

  3. Lotta Saiteu March 20, 2013 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Fencing is acting as a solution but think of a place like Maasai steppe along Tarangire and Manyara national parks in the great rift valley. In 2008, 15 lions were killed just few km from the park.Why? Human-Lion conflict due to increased population and retaliation with livestock. A training to Maasai on feeling ownership of wildlife and its revenue from tourism will do something. Issues like Lion Guardian etc is a great step too. If a lion attack livestock, make compensation,this will conserve too. Check out carnivore magazine on reports of lion killing in Tanzania.

  4. José María Fernández Garcia March 15, 2013 at 7:49 am - Reply

    As an European visitor to African parks and reserves, it’s surprising that wildlife remains confined to fenced reserves, though vast for European standards. Current management models to minimize conflicts between predators and people in Europe include protection of livestock, rather fencing the livestock than sharply separating ecosystems. In Namibia sheperds are using dogs to prevent cheetah attacks, but I don’t know if this broadly applicable or effective in other African contexts.

  5. Vivien Prince March 14, 2013 at 5:50 am - Reply

    When you talk about fencing to save lions – what about all the other wildlife? Elephants roam hundreds of miles – they have to search for food and water in different locations throughout the year. The Great Migration from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara each year – there can be no fences, just as conservationists have been fighting to stop a major highway going through the Serengeti. The people have to be held more accountable! They must go through the proper authorities for compensation, not take the law into their hands and kill lions. This must be enforced rigorously. The whole idea of giving park fees to local communities was in the hope they would reduce herds of cattle and goats, and put money in the bank! It has backfired, with the people not only buying more livestock, competing with the land from wildlife areas, but the populations are growing. Wherever there is a fence or a road, you can be sure there will be more people and pollution into the parks. Nairobi National Park may have no option unless law is enforced much more stringently. But the other National parks and reserves, I doubt fencing will help.

  6. Samuel Kamoto March 14, 2013 at 12:51 am - Reply

    We don’t have any choice but to fence them up! Not doimg this is akin to fast tracking their journey to extinction! Active management is what we need to save these wonderful cats!

  7. Roger Harris March 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    Having been raised in Africa, this scenario has long been my fear. But it’s also true that for the past few decades, nearly all the significant populations of wildlife have been restricted to reserves, whether fenced or not.

  8. Caroline Hunt March 13, 2013 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Perhaps we need to look at it as fencing in the humans! Now that I can totally endorse!

  9. Steve Gluck March 13, 2013 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Absolutely! Strong solid impenetrable fences to protect the last 1% of lions and provide them with everything they need to flourish … matched by strong solid impenetrable fences to protect the top 1% (in wealth) of humans and provide them with everything they need … and let the other 99% of species (& people) make do with what’s left-over.

  10. David Chiawo March 13, 2013 at 5:32 am - Reply

    Good point to investigate. More work needed to unravel the range and ecological preference.More dynamic conservation interventions must supplement the perimeter fencing.

  11. Laurie Marker March 13, 2013 at 5:31 am - Reply

    Sad – our work entails working with communities to live with predators – cheetahs are a lot different than lions, however – the concept of how we do this is still worthwhile pursuing. In our area of Namibia, we do live with large predators, not lions directly where we work with the livestock farmers were cheetahs are found, but in our large rural conservancies in the West and Northeast lions are in these areas with communal livestock farmers. Much of what we have learned in livestock management and living with leopards and cheetahs can be adapted. So, we will keep on looking at large areas and conservancies which benefit from having predators.

  12. Fiona March 13, 2013 at 4:43 am - Reply

    Bottom line, protect the lions at all costs. The fact that the land needs to be fenced and this might impose on our love of wide open space – yes, it is the most awesome experience when one feels unfenced, unhindered and in the centre of a vast open expanse of wilderness, but if this is at the expense of the lions, then it just cannot be and we need to get used to it. There are way too many humans and too few lions.

  13. Kandace Heimer March 12, 2013 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    Here we go again . . . meddling in places we shouldn’t, it will only come to unattended consequences, and I don’t think it will keep out poachers. Lions need to follow the migratory animals and be free. We need to do a better job of protecting the lions. However, answers, I really have none. Billions are spent on “climate change,” I would like to see those revenues go towards better stewardship of lands and oceans, and enforcement of poaching laws. I just read where seven rhinos have been killed in South Africa this past week.

  14. Tom Neal Tacker March 12, 2013 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Thanks Candice. I’ve circulated this story through the naked hungry traveller network. Fairfax (Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald) also published an interesting lion conservation story last weekend regards Maasai lion guardians in Kenya’s Amboseli and Tsavo areas. Apparently this project is also having some success in protecting lions outside official conservation zones.

  15. Alloporus March 12, 2013 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    Yes, fences will have to be part of future wildlife protection. The challenge will be how to use them wisely. Although contentious, the buffalo fence that runs along the western edge of the Okavango delta offers a good example of what such an option might look like. A low altitude flight at right angles to the fence line is quite an eye opener.

  16. Bob Gettman March 12, 2013 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Candice, I always appreciate your thoughtful and articulate discussions. The Mending Wall is one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost, but I also understand that cowboy ballad “Give me room, lots of room, don’t fence me in”. Quite an enigma !!

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