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From St. Olaf to the African savannah

By Kari VanDerVeen
January 8, 2013

Andrew Jacobson '06 nurtured a lifelong interest in African carnivores during a semester spent studying in Tanzania during his senior year at St. Olaf. Now he's part of a Duke University research team that recently released a report about the drastic decline in the African lion population.

When Andrew Jacobson '06 and his colleagues at Duke University released a report last month about the drastic decline in the African lion population, it made headlines around the world.

Their research — which found that the lion population is just one-third of what it was 50 years ago and that its natural habitat has been reduced by 75 percent — attracted the attention of the Washington Post, NBC News, Public Radio International, and the Guardian, among others.

That media attention, Jacobson notes, is the first step toward saving the African lion.

"Giving these lions a fighting chance will require substantial increases in effort," he says.

Jacobson's interest in African carnivores began during childhood and was nurtured during the semester he spent studying in Tanzania while a student at St. Olaf College.

Yet he never imagined he'd make a career of studying African big cats until he was a graduate student at Duke University. There he was offered a position working with National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative and conservation ecologist Stuart Pimm.

He became part of a team that examined very high-resolution satellite imagery of Africa from Google Earth to produce a map of where lions might still exist. That, combined with a systematic evaluation of all existing data on lion populations in Africa, enabled researchers to far more accurately gauge the state of the lion's population and habitat.

"There is an overarching goal of conservation with this research, but so many elements go into it — ecology, biology, sociology, technology," Jacobson says. "The multidisciplinary work focused on a single goal inspired me and was exactly what I was looking for coming out of graduate school."

Jacobson, a biology and environmental studies major at St. Olaf, talks about the key to saving the African lion, his own encounters with big cats, and why he would never own a little cat.

What's the first step toward reversing the decline in the African lion population?
Public knowledge of the lion's plight is central to saving them. This information must filter down to the people who live side-by-side with lions, which is one reason we've made this report available without a fee or subscription. Yet probably the most important step toward reversing the decline of African wildlife is to slow human population growth. Africa's population has grown to nearly a billion and is expected to reach 1.75 billion by 2050. Feeding the expanding human population on some of the world's poorest soils puts tremendous pressure on the remaining natural landscapes where wildlife survives.

Is the African lion in danger of extinction?
The African lion is not in danger of extinction, but its population is continuing to decline. Nearly 5,000 lions live in small and isolated populations. Of the 67 identified areas in Africa where lions roam without fences, only 10 have an excellent chance of sustaining populations into the future. The good news is that the majority of the remaining lions, roughly 24,000, live in these strongholds. These areas, like internationally recognized Serengeti National Park or Kruger National Park, are well protected. However, like we've seen recently with elephants and rhinos, no animal, even within protected areas, is secure from poaching and illegal killing. Protected area managers and park guards must stay vigilant to prevent lion killings. While its important to work to preserve lions outside of parks, it is possible at some point lions will only survive within them.

Has the media attention that your report garnered initiated any action?
Saving lions requires grassroots action and community support. Locals must see the benefits of living with lions outweighing the costs. By their very nature, grassroots actions and changing opinions are hard to measure. From what I know, there have been no new commitments for actions to protect lions due to our report. Yet the African lion is currently being considered for the United States Endangered Species List. Our report has been submitted to the Interior Department for consideration in their deliberations. If the African lion is listed, it will become largely illegal to import lions killed via trophy hunting.

Your team used Google Earth to produce a map of where in Africa lions might still exist. Did you ever think Google would be such a valuable research tool?
No. When I was first assigned the task to start reviewing Google Earth imagery, I was incredulous. However, once I dived in, it was obvious how valuable this resource was. The imagery provided is free, with little to no cloud cover, and is mostly less than 10 years old (even for much of Africa), with resolution of less than a meter in some areas. 

What kind of direct experience have you had with big cats?
I've never touched a big cat, but I've seen all of the African big cats: lion, leopard, and cheetah. All my encounters with them have either been in a vehicle or a tent. And actually, lions have probably gotten closer to me while I was in a tent than I've gotten to them in our vehicle. Once a lion pride walked through my campsite just at daybreak and several other times they've roared from within my camp. At that range, you don't just hear the intake of breath before a roar; you feel the roar physically as it shakes the tent. 

Do you own a ... little cat?
No. Felids are sometimes called hypercarnivores because they rely so heavily on meat. I've always been wary of domestic cats for all the birds and wildlife they eat.

What's your dream job?
Many of the larger zoos around the country have active field conservation projects. Working partly at the zoo, focused on research and education, while paired with a dedicated field project would be ideal.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or