Why Human Population Growth Is the Biggest Threat to African Lions

Male Lion, Zimbabwe, Hwange National Park © Chris Labbe | Dreamstime.com

Male Lion, Zimbabwe, Hwange National Park © Chris Labbe | Dreamstime.com

In the October 2015 issue of Population Connection magazine, at the height of the outcry over the killing of a Zimbabwean lion named Cecil by a vacationing American dentist, we reprinted an article by Heidi Vogt looking at the correlation between the declining African lion population and the growing human population. In this blog post, we’ll take a deeper look at that correlation.

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Red List of Threatened Species, the African lion population has dropped by 43% over the last 21 years (1993-2014). During that same period, the human population of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)—the only part of the African continent where lions remain—grew by 75%, from 534 million to 937 million. The human population in SSA is growing at the fastest rate of any region in the world, at 2.6% per year (compared with 1.1% for the world and 0.7% for the United States), due to a high unmet need for family planning and a desire for large families. By 2050, the United Nations projects that the human population of sub-Saharan Africa will more than double, to 2.1 billion. (See footnote.)

As of today, there are only about 20,000 African lions remaining, and the biggest contributing factor to their decline may be the growing human population in the regions where they range. People in those regions kill lions because they are a threat to their own safety and that of their livestock. Lions also lose their lives due to the encroachment of people on their habitats and the poaching of their prey for human consumption—a direct consequence of human population growth. As communities grow, their land needs grow as well, for housing, commerce, agriculture, and livestock grazing. Perhaps counterintuitively, trophy hunting has actually had a net positive impact on the lion population in some areas, due to the formal protection of lion habitats.

Condemning the trophy hunting dentist for killing a particularly beloved lion is one thing, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that human population growth is the central cause of the declining African lion population. If we want to save lions on a larger scale, we should work to improve voluntary family planning services in areas with high human population growth, for women and couples who want to delay or end their childbearing. The demand is there—it’s time for the supply to catch up.

You can read the article that inspired this blog post in the online version of our quarterly magazine: Human Population Boom Remains Largest Threat to Africa’s Lions in Wake of Cecil’s Killing: Encroachment on natural habitats poses troubling questions about big cats’ future in wild.


All human population data from the 2015 Revision of World Population Prospects; this blog post looks at data for sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to the entire African continent, because lions in North Africa have been extinct since the 1940s. Heidi Vogt’s article uses human population data for the African continent, which is why the numbers in the two articles don’t match.
We Are Population Connection

Since 1968, Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth or ZPG) has been America's voice for population stabilization—we are the largest grassroots population organization in the United States!

Already a member? Renew today!

Your support helps us advocate for universal access to birth control, educate tomorrow’s leaders about global population challenges, and mobilize Americans who care about stabilizing population.

Renew Today

Stay Updated

Join our Email Action Network to hear about important legislative developments, constituent calls to action, and events in your area!

Subscribe