The report, by conservation group LionAid, says that as few as 645 lions may now remain in the wild in western and central Africa, following a worrying decline in recent years. This decline has been mirrored across Africa, with estimates suggesting that only around 15,000 wild lions remain across the whole continent, compared to about 200,000 a few decades ago. This iconic species is now extinct in 25 African countries, and virtually extinct in another 10.
“There has been a catastrophic decline in the populations of lions in Africa, and particularly west Africa,” said Dr Pieter Kat, LionAid Trustee. “These lions have been neglected for a very long time and do not have adequate protection programmes. They are in real danger of extinction.”
Lions under threat
The report follows a series of studies that have raised concern about the future of African lions. In one study, researchers found that about three-quarters of Africa’s savanna habitats had disappeared over the last fifty years, and used this information to estimate the number of remaining lions, which they put at around 32,000. LionAid suggests that the real number of lions left in the wild is actually far lower, although calculating the species’ exact population size is difficult.
“We put the figure… at around 25,000 lions, but whether you use these figures, the LionAid report or the Duke study, there is common agreement among everyone involved in conservation of African lions that the situation is extremely serious,” said Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation.
West African challenges
The LionAid report says that West Africa faces particular conservation challenges, due to a mixture of poverty, lack of political interest in conservation, and an underdeveloped wildlife tourism industry. In Nigeria, for example, the lion is declining fast, with only around 34 individuals remaining, down from 44 in 2009.
“Even though the national parks in West Africa contain very distinct and very important fauna compared to eastern Africa, people tend to ignore that West Africa is a very special place,” said Dr Kat. “As a result the populations in West Africa are declining so quickly, as a biologist I would say that in a country like Nigeria, which has only 34 lions left, they are already extinct. It’s almost impossible to build up a population from such a small number.”
Trophies and culture
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it would look at whether lions should be legally protected under the Endangered Species Act, with U.S. trophy hunting being blamed as a factor in the lion’s decline. However, conservationists say that powerful pro-hunting lobbies are frustrating efforts to impose stricter regulations on the trade in this magnificent big cat.
According to Sarel van der Merwe, Chair of the African Lion Working Group, “In central to west Africa, lion numbers are too low to allow any means of negative impact on the populations and hunting should be prohibited, as should any form of killing, irrespective whether a few lions may be habitual livestock killers. Otherwise, we may well lose the lion as a species.”
Lions are important in the culture of many African nations, and more still needs to be done to protect this iconic cat.
“When you look at a lot of the African countries, what you see is that lions feature on their coats of arms, their flags, and are part of their culture, yet as a species they are not being protected,” said Dr Kat. “What Africans involved in conservation keep telling me is that we are letting a huge amount of African history and culture that is important in national heritage of African countries just slowly disappear.”
Read more on this story at The Guardian – West African lions on verge of extinction, report says.
Find out more about the work of LionAid.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author