March 6, 2013
Lions Face Extinction, Half Likely Gone Within 40 Years
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Most people want to see wild animals run free and unrestricted in their natural habitat.
However, that scenario may come to pass for African lions, which could benefit greatly from living securely within the confines of a protective fence.
According to a new study in Ecology Letters, about half of Africa's wild lion population could decline to near extinction levels over the next 20 to 40 years without critical conservation measures.
"It is clear that fences work and unfenced populations are extremely expensive to maintain," said study co-author Craig Packer, from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at University of Minnesota.
Using historical data from 11 African countries, the international team of researchers behind the study examined the lion population densities and trends in both fenced and unfenced habitats. Their analysis showed that fenced reserves can maintain lions at 80 percent of their potential densities, as compared to about 50 percent for unfenced reserves. The team also noted that lions in unfenced reserves were vulnerable to retaliatory killing by herders, habitat loss, and a decline in available prey.
The team also examined the costs associated with each type of reserve. They found that maintaining fenced reserves costs 25 percent less than protecting lions in an unfenced area.
"These findings highlight the severity of the lion conservation crisis today and the limited choices we have to ensure a future for the species,” said co-author Luke Hunter, from the wild cat conservation group Panthera, based in New York City. ”No one wants to resort to putting any more fences around Africa's marvelous wild areas, but without massive and immediate increases in the commitment to lion conservation, we may have little choice."
Whether officials decide to protect African lions using fences or not, the study stresses that separating lion habitat and human populations will be essential for the big cats´ survival.
“For example, concentrating crop production in areas of intensive agriculture and sparing land as nature reserves can improve species conservation and crop production more effectively than land-sharing strategies that integrate conservation and low-intensity agricultural production,” the authors wrote.
Along with maintaining physical boundaries, Panthera officials recommend conflict mitigation initiatives to reduce the killing of lions where they share the landscape with humans.
"We have shown that it is possible to keep both humans and lions in African landscapes by reducing lion-human conflict, but it requires extensive resources,” said Guy Balme, director of the Panthera lion program. “As the numbers of people and their livestock continue to grow in Africa, it is essential to scale up these programs to avert losing many lion populations."
Panthera´s Project Leonardo is dedicated to “protecting and increasing” the populations of African lions. According to the project´s website, lions face three major threats: conflicts with herders and farmers, loss of habitat, and a decline in the populations of their natural prey.
One of the project´s main goals is to find locally targeted solutions to resolving a lion population´s decline.