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(Soundbite of lion growling)

ALEX COHEN, host:

Lions - you might see or hear them at the movies, but real-life lions are disappearing.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The iconic king of the jungle is another victim in a world running out of room for wild things. Now biologists have evolved a startling strategy to save them. Back from a field trip to Kenya, here is our own Alex Chadwick.

ALEX CHADWICK: Contrary to that old pop song, in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion does not sleep tonight.

(Soundbite of snoring lion)

CHADWICK: Lions hunt at night and nap all day. This is a snoring lion.

(Soundbite of snoring lion)

CHADWICK: But for not much longer. Thirty minutes maybe until the tranquilizer dart wears off.

Mr. LAURENCE FRANK (Conservation Biologist, University of California): Can you hold his head up? Thanks.

CHADWICK: The man is squatting beside the lion. I've spent most of this day with him but just now - he shifts his weight and his shirt pulls up - just now I noticed, he's wearing a Colt automatic on his belt. That's in case Mr. Lion is a light sleeper.

(Soundbite of snoring lion)

CHADWICK: Days later, many miles away by a small river that drains north from a range near Mt. Kenya. The Lion man, Dr. Laurence Frank, settles to the ground again. We walked here from his house. He's armed again, this time with a .470 Nitro Express double rifle. It could bring down an elephant, and there was one outside the house earlier but we're talking about lions. When you say the numbers are dwindling quickly, what are those numbers, and how do you know?

Mr. FRANK: It's truly difficult to count things like lions, which are largely nocturnal. But the very best educated estimates of biologists across Africa is that something in the order of 30,000 lions still remain.

CHADWICK: Thirty thousand, well, that's actually a lot for big cats. Lions aren't even on the red list for endangered species, but the trend, ugh.

Mr. FRANK: Twenty years ago perhaps 200,000 - that was certainly not an accurate number but it shows that people were confident there were still plenty of lions left.

CHADWICK: Two hundred thousand 20 years ago, 30,000 now - it's a crisis. Lawrence is a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. Half the year he's in northern Kenya in the Laikipia region running a project called "Living with Lions." There is open land here forested along the stream beds otherwise, brush in plain with hippos, giraffe, zebras, antelope, gazelles, and predators - leopards, hyenas, lions. Remember, says Lawrence, this is not a park, it's the last bit of East Africa with huge private ranches.

Mr. FRANK: And these people in the last 20 years or so have come to see conservation as the way of the future. This is both economically from tourism and also they're very, very deeply involved in the land and its people and its animals. This place is extraordinary. There is nowhere else like it in the world.

CHADWICK: How many lions do you think are here?

Mr. FRANK: I estimate something in the order of 200 to 250 lions, probably the only lion population in east Africa which is not declining. It's stable if not increasing.

CHADWICK: Hunting wildlife is illegal in Kenya but the lions are dying out because people kill them, and it's easy to see who and how and why. The landscape is mostly dry-range land. Country people herd cattle, sheep and goats, and to a lion, these are slower, fatter analogues to antelope.

Mr. FRANK: For a rural Kenyan, there is absolutely no financial upside to tolerating wildlife. Lions, hyenas, leopards eat livestock, occasionally kill people. If you're dependent on your herd of 30 cattle and the lion kills two of them one night, that's tremendous blow.

CHADWICK: The hunting ban in Kenya is more than 30 years old. Guns are more common now than they used to be but it would raise questions to be caught with one near a dead lion. What has really changed here is the now much greater availability of what's become the number one lion killer, and that is poison.

Mr. FRANK: For few pennies you can buy enough poison in any little rural store in Kenya to wipe out an entire pride of lions or group of hyenas.

(Soundbite of growling lion)

CHADWICK: The lion outlook is grim. Some will survive in wildlife parks, but their real wildness will be lost, unless the people they live among gets some value for the trouble. And so Laurence Frank, conservationist, wildlife researcher decades in Africa comes to a difficult conclusion about nature and human nature, lions and all the other wildlife.

Mr. FRANK: Either people pay a lot of money to watch it and take pictures and make movies of it, or they pay very high sums of money to shoot it.

CHADWICK: Say, what?

Dr. FRANK: Shoot it. Shoot it. Shoot it. Shoot it. Shoot it.

CHADWICK: Hunting. He means hunting, this from a conservationist. In South Africa, a lot of wildlife has rebounded on vast hunting reserves. For lions, hunters want the large old males with big manes.

Dr. FRANK: I personally don't understand the appeal of shooting large male animals to hang on your wall. But in the case of the big game, it can bring in fantastic sums of money.

CHADWICK: Yes, fantastic sums, up to $150,000 for a permit to shoot one lion. Several Africa-focused conservation organizations endorse the hunting idea. Some animal groups are horrified by it.

Dr. FRANK: Guys who want to shoot an elephant or a lion or a buffalo want a great big old male, they don't want a young breeding female. And the fact is, that as any man my age knows, old males are pretty pointless in the population anymore.

CHADWICK: You can't hunt lions in Kenya now, Laurence says. There aren't enough. But wildlife management is a science, he says, and you could manage them for sustainability.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

CHADWICK: At Mugie Ranch in northern Laikipai, Laurence sights along the barrel of a short rifle, the lightest weapon I've seen him carry. We're in a Land Rover, he's in back, passenger side, window down, aiming at a large male lion 20 feet away.

(Soundbite of growling lion)

CHADWICK: The dart stings into lion's shoulder, a good shot. The anesthesia works quickly.

(Soundbite of snoring lion)

CHADWICK: Laurence measures parts from teeth to testicles, all good lion data he's been gathering for years. Lions of course, are only part of the equation. People live here. That's the name of his project, "Living with Lions." It's not easy.

Dr. FRANK: And yet, we as animal-loving Westerners feel that these people should just happily love animals the way we do with never thinking about the realities that they face with this animal.

CHADWICK: Conservation biologist Laurence Frank of the University of California at Berkeley and the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Panthera Foundation.

(Soundbite of running water)

CHADWICK: Looking for lions one evening, we cross a narrow river and pause to look down from a bridge. Two women are knee-deep in the water, filling big plastic jugs. There's a baby in a sling. Two young children are farther up on the back. They'll all walk home two or three miles from where we recorded this lion that night.

(Soundbite of growling lion)

CHADWICK: Mothers, kids, very wild animals. I wonder what an American mom, even a conservationist, would think.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

CHADWICK: Tomorrow, among the Maasai, lion hunters will become lion guardians. This is Alex Chadwick for NPR News.

BRAND: You can read more about lions and see some amazing pictures at our Web site, npr.org. And thanks to National Geographic for help in producing that piece.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

BRAND: NPR's Day to Day continues.

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