Conservationists often advocate for landscape approaches to wildlife management while others argue for physical separation between protected species and human communities, but direct empirical comparisons of these alternatives are scarce. We relate African lion population densities and population trends to contrasting management practices across 42 sites in 11 countries. Lion populations in fenced reserves are significantly closer to their estimated carrying capacities than unfenced populations. Whereas fenced reserves can maintain lions at 80% of their potential densities on annual management budgets of $500 km−2, unfenced populations require budgets in excess of $2000 km−2 to attain half their potential densities. Lions in fenced reserves are primarily limited by density dependence, but lions in unfenced reserves are highly sensitive to human population densities in surrounding communities, and unfenced populations are frequently subjected to density-independent factors. Nearly half the unfenced lion populations may decline to near extinction over the next 20–40 years.