AboutZoos, Since 2008


Lions face extinc­tion in West Africa

pub­lished 10 Jan­u­ary 2014 | mod­i­fied 25 Decem­ber 2014

A report pub­lished today con­cludes that the African lion is fac­ing extinc­tion across the entire West African region. The West African lion once ranged con­tin­u­ously from Sene­gal to Nige­ria, but the new paper reveals there are now only an esti­mated 250 adult lions restricted to four iso­lated and severely imper­illed pop­u­la­tions. Only one of those pop­u­la­tions con­tains more than 50 lions.

West African male lionThe sci­en­tists, led by Panthera’s Lion Pro­gram Sur­vey Coor­di­na­tor, Dr. Philipp Hen­schel, and co-​authored by a team from West Africa, the UK, Canada and the United States, pro­vide sober­ing results that rep­re­sent a mas­sive sur­vey effort tak­ing six years and cov­er­ing eleven coun­tries where lions were pre­sumed to exist in the last two decades. The paper ‘The lion in West Africa is crit­i­cally endan­gered’ was pub­lished on 8 Jan­u­ary in the sci­en­tific jour­nal PLOS ONE. The new, very fine res­o­lu­tion infor­ma­tion builds on an ear­lier continent-​wide review of lion sta­tus pro­duced by Duke Uni­ver­sity, to which Dr. Hen­schel also con­tributed. Both sur­veys received fund­ing from National Geographic’s Big Cats Ini­tia­tive (BCI). While a report pub­lished in March last year, focused on the effec­tive­ness of fenc­ing as a mea­sure in lion con­ser­va­tion, by a large team of lion biol­o­gists also con­firmed that almost half of Africa’s lions faced extinction.

If we lose the lion in West Africa, we will lose a unique, locally adapted pop­u­la­tion found no-​where else. It makes their con­ser­va­tion even more urgent
Dr. Chris­tine Bre­it­en­moser, co-​chair of the IUCN/​SCC Cat Spe­cial­ist Group »

Panthera’s Dr. Philipp Hen­schel explained, “When we set out in 2006 to sur­vey all the lions of West Africa, the best reports sug­gested they still sur­vived in 21 pro­tected areas. We sur­veyed all of them, rep­re­sent­ing the best remain­ing lion habi­tat in West Africa. Our results came as a com­plete shock; all but a few of the areas we sur­veyed were basi­cally paper parks, hav­ing nei­ther man­age­ment bud­gets nor patrol staff, and had lost all their lions and other iconic large mammals.”

The team dis­cov­ered that West African lions now sur­vive in only 5 coun­tries, Sene­gal, Nige­ria and a sin­gle trans-​frontier pop­u­la­tion on the shared bor­ders of Benin, Niger and Burk­ina Faso. They are genet­i­cally dis­tinct from the better-​known lions of famous game parks in East and south­ern Africa. Recent mol­e­c­u­lar research shows they are closely related to the extinct “Bar­bary Lions” which once roamed North Africa, as well as to the last Asian lions sur­viv­ing in India.

“West African lions have unique genetic sequences not found in any other lions, includ­ing in zoos or cap­tiv­ity,” explained Dr. Chris­tine Bre­it­en­moser, the co-​chair of the IUCN/​SCC Cat Spe­cial­ist Group, which deter­mines the con­ser­va­tion sta­tus of wild cats around the world. “If we lose the lion in West Africa, we will lose a unique, locally adapted pop­u­la­tion found no-​where else. It makes their con­ser­va­tion even more urgent.”

Lions have dis­ap­peared across Africa as human pop­u­la­tions and their live­stock herds have grown, com­pet­ing for land with lions and other wildlife. Wild savan­nahs are con­verted for agri­cul­ture and cat­tle, the lion’s nat­ural prey is hunted out and lions are killed by pas­toral­ists fear­ing the loss of their herds.

National Geo­graphic Explorer-​in-​Residence and BCI co-​founder Dereck Jou­bert com­mented, “Every sur­vey we do is inac­cu­rate because as soon as you com­plete it, it is already out of date; the declines are so rapid. It is a ter­ri­bly sad state of affairs when you can very accu­rately count the lions in an area because there are so few of them. This is crit­i­cal work that again con­firms that we are under­es­ti­mat­ing the rate of decline of lion pop­u­la­tions and that the sit­u­a­tion requires a global emer­gency intervention.”

Today, fewer than 35,000 lions remain in Africa in about 25% of the species’ orig­i­nal range. In West Africa, the lion now sur­vives in less than 50,000km2 – smaller than half the size of New York State – and only 1% of its orig­i­nal his­toric range in the region.

Panthera’s Pres­i­dent, Dr. Luke Hunter, co-​authored the paper and stated, “Lions have under­gone a cat­a­strophic col­lapse in West Africa. The coun­tries that have man­aged to retain them are strug­gling with per­va­sive poverty and very lit­tle fund­ing for con­ser­va­tion. To save the lion – and many other crit­i­cally endan­gered mam­mals includ­ing unique pop­u­la­tions of chee­tahs, African wild dogs and ele­phants – will require a mas­sive com­mit­ment of resources from the inter­na­tional community.”

(Source: Pan­thera press release, 08.01.2014)

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Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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