This three-legged lion is a symbol of hope

Jacob, a tree-climbing lion of Uganda, has survived a snare, a trap, and attempted poisoning—but he’s still in danger due to a rise in poaching.

By Douglas Main
Published 16 Aug 2021, 10:51 BST
jacob in tree
Jacob resting in the branches of a large fig tree in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, where lions have developed a culture of tree-climbing. Photographed here in 2018, Jacob had not yet lost his leg, but even today he’s still able to climb trees.
Photograph by Alexander Braczkowski

Cats may not have nine lives, but Jacob the lion comes close. He’s already survived four tragedies that could have killed a lesser lion: Snaring, trapping, poisoning, and a buffalo goring.

Most recently the six-year-old African lion, one of Uganda’s tree-climbing lions, was caught in a wheel trap—similar to a bear trap—in neighboring Virunga National Park, within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where his pride sometimes roams.

The trap severed his leg above the foot in August 2020, and after being treated multiple times by a crew of veterinarians with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, he’s figured out how to get around on three limbs, even joining his pride on hunts. He’s since been seen mating with at least one female, says Alex Braczkowski, a lion researcher and National Geographic Explorer who last filmed Jacob in his home, Queen Elizabeth National Park, in February.

The snare wound of Jacob’s first injury in October of 2019. Despite a deep gash, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and partner NGOs managed to save his leg with a rapid response.
Photographs Courtesy of Kabunzungwire Moris and Mustafa Nsubuga
Uganda Conservation Foundation veterinarian Mustafa Nsubuga holds up the severed leg Jacob lost in the wheel trap in August 2020. After multiple rounds of treatment by several people, including Nsubuga, Eric Enyel, Bazil Alidria, and others, the wound healed and today Jacob gets by on three legs.
Photographs Courtesy of Kabunzungwire Moris and Mustafa Nsubuga

Braczkowski says his incredible resilience is an inspiration. “It just shows that if these animals are given half a chance to continue, they can still eke out an existence, and that’s pretty amazing,” says Braczkowski. “It’s heroic stuff.”

But Jacob’s plight also highlights some of the serious threats facing the species, which numbers only about 20,000 in the wild and is listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Poachers across Africa are increasingly targeting lions for their body parts, such as their teeth, claws, and bones, which are used in Southeast Asia (and a few African communities) as medicine or as status symbols, says Paul Funston, lion program director for Panthera, the global wildcat conservation organization.

Six lions within Jacob’s pride were poisoned in March 2020 by poachers, though he escaped unharmed. A few weeks later Jacob was gored by an animal—a Cape buffalo or a warthog—which left deep puncture wounds in his chest. And in 2019, Jacob was caught in a poacher’s snare before being rescued. (Read about 11 tree-climbing lions that died in 2018 due to poisoning.)

“It is vital that this trade is halted, as it has the real risk of driving many already heavily depleted lion populations to local extinction,” Funston says.

Growing threats

Jacob wears a radio-tracking collar, which alerts the Uganda Wildlife Authority when he stops moving, a sign that he may be injured. When Jacob lost his leg, the agency spearheaded an ambitious effort to save him, including multiple rounds of treatment, drawing on experts from several organisations, such as the Uganda Conservation Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Despite the area’s popularity for tourism, the incidence of snaring has risen in recent years, not only to catch lions but to trap other mammals for bushmeat, Braczkowski says.

Jacob walking through Queen Elizabeth in early February 2021. By this time Jacob's leg wound had healed over, roughly five months after injury. He was already able to keep up with his pride and even helping to hunt.
Photograph by Alex Braczkowski

As prey populations decrease due to snaring, lions in the area travel about six times further than lions in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve to find food, research shows, and they are moving much more than they did a decade ago.

In Queen Elizabeth and surrounding areas, “the conservation of lions hinges on critical collaborations between the Uganda Wildlife Authority and NGO partners—and being at the right place at the right time,” Braczkowski says.

Conservationists agree that more needs to be done to combat the illegal trade in lion parts, such as more funding for guards to watch over the lions, organising patrols to remove snares, improved collaboration to protect the animals, and more engagement with local people. (Learn more about snaring and how it has become the biggest threat to lions.)

Lions are well protected in about 15 to 20 percent of their remaining habitat, particularly in parts of southern Africa and East Africa, Funston says.

But if snaring and poaching remains uncontrolled, he adds, the species “may not continue to exist in certain regions of its range in coming years.”

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Alexander Braczkowski’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.


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