By Kevin Heath
The results of a 6 year lion survey covering West Africa has shown just how precarious the population is. There is estimated to be barely 400 west African lions left spread over 5 countries. With fewer than 250 mature adult lions left the west African lion meets criterion C2a(ii) for designation as critically endangered.
While officially there are only two sub-species of lions – African and Asiatic – modern studies have shown that lions from Central, West and North Africa are genetically linked to Asiatic lions rather than southern and eastern African lions. The northern Africa lion – also known as the Barbary lion – is already extinct which makes the western African lion of conservation importance.
The survey which has just been published in PlosOne covered 11 west African countries but the western African lion was found in only 5 countries. Only one of the populations discovered by researchers had more than 50 lions.
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 Asiatic 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.”
Analysis of the survey showed that there is just 406 west African lions remaining ( (273–605 range) compared to 35,000 southern and eastern African lions.
The paper points out that while there is a lot of research on lions in southern Africa there is little, if any, research on lions of western Africa. The researchers also point to the higher losses of large mammals in western African countries compared to other countries in Africa. Between 1970 and 2005 west African countries lost 85% of their large mammal populations compared with 59% across Africa.
Habitat loss and poverty are the two main drivers behind the collapse in west African lion populations. Habitat is being converted to agricultural land and poverty is supporting an active bush meat market. Lack of resources in the countries of West Africa means that enforcement and conservation development is lacking.
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.”
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.”