By Dave Armstrong
Lions are symbols of power and everything else that stems from it. In Europe they are gone while Asia clings to a few Indian specimens as Panthera leo persica. Africa is all that the species has left. It looks soon as though the West African populations, fragmented and looking lost, will join the related Asian sub-species in a descent that we really must reverse. Those who regard hunting as an answer to South African lion conservation also need to re-examine their logic.
Panthera leo looks to join the tiger sub-species as being critically or otherwise threatened, rather than the current, "vulnerable." There are still 35K African lions. The modern species all descend from African stock originally, but the West Africans have unique mtDNA that we must conserve to preserve genetic diversity (and the stock!)
Lauren Coad of Oxford University is joined by several colleagues from diverse interested institutions including the Nigeria National Park Service in order to publicise these neglected western lions in PLoS ONE. They gathered data from 8 PAs (protected areas) and have themselves surveyed 13 large PAs. No lions were found in many of these specified lion conservation units - only 4 contained lions.
This means there are approximately 406 lions in the whole of West Africa ! Less than 250 mature animals can breed and they have only 1.1% of their original range left. The trouble with West Africa is within nations from Senegal to Nigeria. International agreements and action are the only way forward as national disagreement, war and natural disasters are rife in some areas. Unlike the comparative stability of the south and east, lions here have few chances of survival in the middle of human problem areas. Even remote cameras, which are regarded as the most efficient recording method, failed to detect much more than track searches revealed. The authors
Budget deficiencies were noted and severe management inadequacies were indicated by the study. Only 2 PAs had what appeared to be a management that could operate adequately (though not necessarily successfully.) Such catastrophes over many areas have produced a loss of 99% of the lion's range. 88% of the lions left live in a single, fairly central population within the borders of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, known as W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP), as surveyed in 2012. In case anyone suffers from the illusion that hunting is the only problem, careful figures on 4 prey species revealed that one of the WAP areas had the only increases in these: hartebeest, buffalo, roan antelope and waterbuck.
With some parks having no lion records for more than a decade, perhaps we have neglected West Africa and this lion, far too much. The East African parks require a minimum area of 291 square km, which would be enough space to provide 16.2 adults with prey, if that prey had not disappeared (bushmeat, etc.) In West Africa, much more range is required (probably 4,000 square km), given the increased hunting pressure and lower numbers of natural game. This explains a huge loss of lions from small PAs. The staff size of each park also affects the species they are struggling to protect. 0-4 staff per 100square km currently run many PAs, with large deficiencies reported, and a frequent lack of law enforcement. As we know from many other African species, the gun seems to rule here, so laws are ineffective against any level of dedication in the poachers.
There is hope, but not much. Even the re-classification by the Cat Specialist Group of the IUCN may magically reverse some financial or other restrictions somewhere. The situation is so desperate that it will certainly be necessary to combine forces in every possible way, with rhino, elephant and even cheetah, wild dog and Western giant eland, Tragelaphus derbianus ssp. Derbianus conservers. Government dedication to fight illegal gunmen is presumably a universal in Africa. That kind of action, by army or police, could break the back of forces that encourage the loss of a species such as lion. Money obviously talks, leaving the necessity that conservation organisations all have to become involved.
In such ways the West African lion, followed by the total African population can perhaps be saved and this terrible trend reversed. Photographic tourism is seen as the future for West Africa by the authors. Let us hope that the most stable African nations can demonstrate their wildlife to us successfully. Just let us know the good news in your savannah areas and your forests and we will respond, instead of worrying over the negativity of massacres and violent politicians.