A lion that escaped from a private game reserve has been terrorising residents of the small northern town of Makhado for a week.

Johannesburg - Over the past 20 years the lion population in Africa has plummeted and forecasts for the future are not too bright. While conservationists across Africa work tirelessly at maintaining numbers, they can only be as successful as the financial basis of their operations – the tourism industry.

This festive season the Open Africa Safari Collection encourages travellers to seek out safari destinations, which not only promote sustainable and responsible tourism, but also actively support lion conservation.

Ten years ago there were about 200 000 wild lions in Africa. Today, the latest surveys estimate that there are fewer than 25 000. Compared with other endangered wildlife, the number of lions is less than the 26 000 black and white rhinos and significantly less than the 500 000 African elephants estimated to live on our beautiful continent.

So why has there been more than a 50 percent reduction in the lion population over the past 20 years and what can you do about it this holiday season?

Africa’s largest carnivore is precariously moving towards the brink of extinction mostly due to habitat loss, conflict with humans over livestock, and illegal killing – often for lion bones used in Asian traditional medicine.

Lions have vanished from 80 percent of their historical range and only eight countries – Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – are thought to have more than 1 000 lions. Kenya alone loses more than 100 of its estimated 2 000 wild lions every year due to human-wildlife conflict with herders and farmers.

Sam Taylor, chief conservation officer on Kenya’s Borana Conservancy, says: “The realistic long-term solution to the protection of lion is providing a secure habitat, protecting the livelihoods of neighbouring communities from wildlife conflict and integrating tourism revenue into their economy through conservation-driven commerce.”

Borana is part of the Open Africa collection of conservation-focused private safari lodges and game reserves that promote responsible tourism experiences. Borana, Lewa and Ol Pejeta are three of the partners in the 10 000km2 Laikipia District who work with the Living with Lions research project. Through studying lions, practical measures have been implemented to encourage co-existence between people, livestock and predators.

“At Borana, we have collared one female in each pride, as well as two males. This allows a dedicated scout to monitor the lions each day.

“This monitoring helps to largely negate the impacts of human-wildlife conflict with neighbouring pastoralist communities, as lion guardians are deployed to community areas when lions have moved nearby.”

Other Open Africa partners in South Africa play a significant role in protecting at least 100 lions.

The five reserves include Kariega and Shamwari in the Eastern Cape, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, and Londolozi and MalaMala in the Sabi Sands next to the Kruger National Park.

What can you do to help the conservation of Africa’s most famous animal?

Go on holiday. Tourism plays a huge role in persuading local people that there is a future in community-led conservation. It can also help the research and protection of lion populations. Choose a lodge that involves the local community. These communities realise that when a lion (rhino or elephant) is killed they lose an asset. Choose a lodge that is actively involved in conservation.

Donate. Despite its overwhelming importance in lion conservation, there has been remarkably little research on lion-human conflict.

One of the organisations leading wild-cat research is Panthera. It is implementing a lion conservation plan across their entire African range and focuses on areas where lions are under the greatest threat – Lion Conflict Landscapes – from Senegal to South Africa.

Tools and techniques are implemented, based on excellent research, to mitigate conflict between lions and people, and to inhibit the reasons that people kill lions.

Donations can be made to the Panthera Foundation online at http://www.panthera.org/action-center/donate

Buy a gift. Panthera also offers a variety of gear that goes to support its work. Buy this online at http://shop.panthera.org/

Just think, Africa wouldn’t be the same without its lions.

l The Open Africa Safari Collection provides sustainable revenue for Open Africa projects. For more info visit www.openafrica.org/safaris - Saturday Star