Poison Takes Toll On Africa's Lions

Kenyan Cattle Herders Are Using The American Pesticide Furadan To Kill The Predators

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

This story was first published on March 29, 2009. It was updated on July 25, 2009.

We all grew up learning that the lion is the king of the jungle. And now that we're not little any more, we know just how vulnerable they are. In fact, when exposed to man's devices, lions are extremely fragile.

The latest weapon being used against them is poison. As 60 Minutes first reported last March, African herders whose livestock and livelihood are threatened by lions are killing them in the most effective and economical way they can.

And overwhelmingly, that is by using a cheap American chemical called Furadan. It is marketed as a pesticide, to be used for protecting crops. But it's bought by many to kill animals. And that's one reason why, conservationists say, Africa's lions are in trouble.

More Information: Living with Lions

Correspondent Bob Simon took a journey through the bush in Kenya to find out what's going on. We learned that 20 years ago, there were some 200,000 lions in Africa. Today, there are 30,000 and the numbers are going down all the time.

Lions are being poisoned at a staggering rate in Kenya, and there's little chance cubs outside the wildlife reserves there will make it to adulthood.

Dr. Laurence Frank, of the University of California Berkeley, told Simon he believes that poison, combined with other threats, will make the lion in Africa extinct.

Frank has been following lions for the last 30 years, looking for ways to keep them alive. While 60 Minutes was there, Alayne Cotterill, his colleague, needed to put a new collar on a lioness named Mara. She darted her and put her to sleep.

Cotterill and Frank had less than an hour to do their work before Mara would wake up. A sleeping lion is a deceptively gentle creature. Her coat, which looks exquisitely smooth, is actually quite rough to the touch.

Seeing Mara's claws retracting into soft, padded paws, you understand why she is such an efficient killer. But actually, she may be more afraid of us than we are of her.

"They're very unlikely to attack us," Cotterill explained. "There's been so many years of conflict with people in this area, it's almost hardwired into their systems to be terrified of people."

And with good reason: over the millennia, people have speared, shot and trapped lions. Today, the primary culprit appears to be poison.

"We know of 30-plus poisonings just in this area in the last five or six years. We have data on another 35 or 40 poisonings in our other study area, elsewhere in Kenya. But that's gotta be just the tiny tip of the iceberg," Dr. Frank told Simon.

Mara is part of a pride which lives on Claus Mortensen's ranch. Five years ago he found out just how devastating poison can be when he discovered that another of his prides had gone missing.

"After a few days, vultures were seen circling on our northern boundary there. And we went out and we found first one lion, then another, and then another," Mortensen remembered.

Seven lions in all had perished. The lions had been vomiting and there were no bullet wounds.

Mortensen said he was sure the lions had been poisoned and suspects that Furadan was responsible. It's one of the most toxic pesticides sold in Kenya, widely available and hard to detect because it dissipates quickly in poisoned animals. Lab tests, he says, ruled out any other poison.

So why would anyone want to poison these glorious creatures? The first thing you need to know is that 70 percent of the country's wildlife is found outside the protected game reserves, on Kenya's vast plains, where wild animals and cattle mingle. Lions are there too, and that's where the trouble begins. The lions attack and eat the cattle.

The area is inhabited by the Maasai people, who always had a way of dealing with that. The young men went out hunting lions with spears; it was a rite of passage. Antony Kasanga was one of them.

Asked what it means for a young Maasai man to kill a lion, Kasanga told Simon, "It makes you famous. You get the whole community to know you, because you killed a lion….If you had one girlfriend, you get 20 more."

It's more than just having 20 girlfriends: killing lions protects cattle, the very foundation of the Maasai's existence.

When a cow is killed by a lion, Kasanga said it's a disaster.

And Kasanga's job now is to avert that disaster and save the lion at the same time. He is a leading member of the Lion Guardians, a group of reformed Maasai warriors who keep track of collared lions and warn herders when the lions get too close to their cattle.