A survey of West African lions has revealed that there may be fewer than 250 adult lions left in the wild. How has this happened, and is there any way to save the iconic animal before it goes extinct?
A new study published in the science journal PLOS ONE tells of an alarmingly low number of adult lions populating the 1,500 mile stretch of Senegal to Nigeria. While their better known Eastern and Southern counterparts are also dwindling in number, the smaller West African lion’s numbers seem to have seen particular devastation, but though shocking, this isn’t entirely unexpected.
Indeed, the decline in lion numbers has been a hot topic for some time. But with research calling attention to the fact that West African lions are genetically distinct from their Central African cousins, there has been a need to close the knowledge gap on exactly how many lions of this kind are left in the wild and, crucially, where.
To get a picture of the true scale of the population, researchers for Panthera, a global wildcat conservation agency, surveyed 13 designated large protected areas, all of which had been stamped as Lion Conservation Units.
The researchers found that in only four protected areas could they confirm the presence of West African lions, with estimated numbers of the total lion population being between 273-605 lions (406 as a likely total). This figure is made even more serious when one looks at the number of adult lions in that population, which the researchers believe is less than 250. With such little genetic diversity in the population, it will be difficult to produce healthy prides in the future. The West African lion’s range has also been severely reduced, with lions occupying just 1.1% of its historical range. This further reduces the chances of genetic diversity and is a risk factor for population collapse.
“It was really not known that the status of the lion was so dire in West Africa,” co-author of the study Philipp Henschel is quoted as saying. “In many countries it was not known that there were no more lions in those areas because there had been no funding to conduct surveys.”
How Can the West African Lion be Saved?
Could the survey yield any answers about why some protected areas managed to support lion populations while others could not? The good news is yes. The survey team noted a few characteristics of the protected areas that had lions which points to further action. Sadly, it’s nothing all that shocking: the lion-containing protected areas were larger and had a higher management budget. In essence, this is about money and how it is allocated. As a result, the researchers are calling for more investment from the international community to rescue this lion population from the jaws of extinction.
What should drive that, the researchers say, is the fact that West African lions are distinct from their Central African cousins and must be recognized as such to be afforded a special conservation interest.
This is a direct shout out to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which is currently considering whether the West African lion is suitably genetically different to be considered a sub-species and distinct from its cousins. Recognizing the population’s unique characteristics would allow the targeted investment that is needed to help mobilize for action. In addition to this, the researchers are also calling for the lion to be listed as critically endangered in West Africa, further emphasizing the need for action.
What Caused Lion Numbers to Drop So Low?
The West African lions’ territories have been severely reduced by people converting wild areas to pastureland. In turn, lions have also been driven out of areas surrounding these conservation sites so as to protect livestock. In addition, the lions’ prey, animals like gazelles and wildebeest, have also been hunted by humans and their grazing lands converted, which has driven their populations away from the lions’ traditional hunting areas.
There is, once again, also the issue of money. West African governments have seen little reason to put money into lion conservation, arguing that the wildlife tourism associated with other regions of Africa won’t be of benefit to them.
One key way to saving animals appears to be making the issue a matter of national pride: we’ve seen animals that in some way embody or represent a region can be saved. How to convince local people that lions — who are after all competing for territory and in some cases food — are worth saving, will be a hard task but it will be vital to ensuring the West African lions’ survival. What’s more, it will have to be done soon: the lions probably have only five more years before they are past the point of no return.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.