Physically and emotionally demanding. That’s how Philipp Henschel, Lion Program Survey Coordinator for the big-cat conservation organization Panthera, describes the six years he and other researchers spent combing the wilds of 17 nations looking for the elusive and rarely studied West African lion. The results of their quest were disheartening to say the least. Back in 2005, before the survey began, West African lions were believed to live in 21 different protected areas. But now a paper about the survey, published today in PLoS One, confirms that lions actually exist in just four of those sites. Worse still, the researchers estimate that the total population for West African lions is only about 400 animals, including fewer than 250 mature individuals of breeding age.
West African lions—historically referred to as the subspecies Panthera leo senegalensis, although that taxonomic designation is not currently in use—are smaller than and genetically distinct from their southern and eastern African relatives, which are also in decline and currently number about 35,000 big cats. Recent genetic tests link them more closely to the extinct Barbary lion of northern Africa and the critically endangered Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) in India, which also has a population of about 450 animals.
Although shocking, the news of the lions’ near extinction should probably not come as a surprise given the context of the region. The populations of other large mammal species declined an average of 85 percent in West Africa between 1970 and 2005, mostly to feed the voracious demand of the bushmeat trade. The 11 nations of West Africa are among the poorest on earth and include six of the world’s least developed countries. The countries in the region have no money for conservation, and the study found that most of the protected areas that were expected to contain lions had little to no enforcement, security patrols or management. National parks are frequently overrun by tens of thousands of domesticated cattle. Henschel describes many of the so-called protected areas as “paper parks”—conservation sites in name only.
- Lion Meat Tacos (You Read That Right) Are the Latest Threat to Conservation
- When Did the Barbary Lion Really Go Extinct?
- DNA Reveals the Last 20 Ethiopian Lions Are Genetically Distinct
- African Lions Move Closer to U.S. Endangered Species Act Protection
- The Last 400 Asiatic Lions Need More Room to Grow–but Where Will They Go?
- Lions vs. Cattle: Taste Aversion Could Solve African Predator Problem