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Can More Fences Mean More Wildlife?

If your vision of nature is all the animals roaming free together, you might be in for a shock: building fences might be the only way to save lions.

Can More Fences Mean More Wildlife?

The proverb "Good fences make good neighbors" is truer than ever when your neighbors happen to be the kings of the jungle. The New York Times reported on lion researcher Craig Packer's crusade to bring fences to the Serengeti to protect endangered lions from farmers, who hunt down the beasts that feast on their livestock.

Traditionally, conservationists have attempted to let wildlife roam free, which helps make tourists feel like they’re in virgin African wildnerness. But Packer told the Times that he’s over that kind of magical thinking, which has contributed to the disappearance of 75% of Africa’s lions in the last 100 years. Part of the problem is that Africa’s population has grown significantly, putting more humans, and their farm animals, into contact with lions:

"Reality has to intrude," he said. "Do you want to know the two most hated species in Africa, by a mile? Elephants and lions."

Packer was a co-author on a recent paper in Ecology Letters, which compared unfenced and fenced lion populations in 11 different African countries. "Nearly half the unfenced lion populations may decline to near extinction over the next 20–40 years," the paper concludes, and argues for the installation of fencing—expensive at $3,000 per kilometer—wherever humans and lions are cohabitating.

"In some cases, human-occupied zones within larger wildlife-dominated ecosystems may even need to be fenced as enclaves," reads the paper, citing the fact that about "30,000 people live in 40 villages inside Mozambique’s Niassa National Reserve."

So is it the humans, or the lions, that need to be fenced in? The ethical, aesthetic, and financial challenges could make Packer’s strategy a hard one to pull off.