Since the release of The Lion King more than 25 years ago the population has halved, and while lions once ruled the African planes that’s far from the case these days.
Now for every lion in the wild, there are 14 African elephants and 15 Western lowland gorillas. Rhinos – which we tend to think of as more at risk – are also more numerous than lions.
Lion expert and conservationist Dr Craig Packer says most people were unaware of the issue before the film’s release.
“When The Lion King first came out no one was worried about lion conservation. It’s happened over time,” he said. “And when the film first was released it was unrealistic to show one pride in the whole of Africa, or even Kenya, where they ruled and protected their territory, but now that’s not far from the truth in some areas.”
Most of the African continent used to be home to the species, but now the majestic animal has disappeared from 94 percent of the range it usually covered. In fact, its territory in Africa now accounts for less than 660,000 square miles.
This drop in population has led to lions being listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Wildlife Conservation Network, who said their population has halved since The Lion King first premiered in 1994.
Only about 20,000 lions remain in the wild, but research has shown their numbers could recover if we protect their homes and the animals they rely on for food.
How Disney is helping
With the release of the live-action remake, The Walt Disney Company announced it was launching a global conservation campaign, “Protect the Pride”, to raise awareness of the crisis lions are facing as well as other wildlife across Africa. It aims to educate people about the issue as well as encourage support for the ongoing projects.
The “Protect the Pride” campaign has teamed up with Wildlife Conservation Network’s (WCN) Lion Recovery Fund (LRF) to help them reach their goal to double the lion population in Africa by 2050.
What can be done to save the lions?
The LRF has already invested $5 million in conservation projects in 17 countries in the past three years, but it still needs more funding. A study carried out in 2018 by the LRF reported it would take a billion dollars a year to secure the lions in the areas already protected in Africa – the current funding budget is about $381 million annually.
Disney has already donated more than $1.5 million to the LRF and its partners, but it plans to double that through additional grants to $3 million. There are also a few ways fans can get involved listed on Disney.com/LionKingProtectThePride, from special edition plushes and a book going on sale as well as the parks getting involved.
Disney’s conservation work probably isn’t as well known as the films it produces, but it’s by no means a small part of its operation. While the Protect the Pride project marks the largest donation in the 24-year history of the fund, it has previously directed $75 million to wildlife projects around the world, $13 million of which went to African projects.
“Through the stories we tell and the experiences we create, we have the power to reach people around the world and inspire them to take action with us,” said Elissa Margolis, senior vice president, Enterprise Social Responsibility for The Walt Disney Company. “Disney is committed to supporting lion conservation efforts and we believe The Lion King is the perfect story to remind us of the role each of us has in ensuring a world where these majestic animals are treasured and protected. Conservation has always been a core value of The Walt Disney Company and that commitment is apparent in everything from our films to our theme parks and is why we created the Disney Conservation Fund.”
As part of its drive to raise awareness, Disney also brought together 80 of the world’s leading lion conservation experts with the WCN, from 18 countries and 50 organisations, for the Lion Footprint Forum held at Walt Disney World. The group looked at strategies and ways to encourage the lion population to increase as well as challenges the animal faces in the wild. The proposals and ideas they came up with are being considered by the LRF.
“Lions are truly one of the world’s universal icons, and they are quietly slipping away,” says Paul Thomson, director of conservation programs for WCN. “Now is the time to stop the loss and bring lions back to landscapes across the continent.”
The Lion King is in cinemas now.