Threat Of Extinction Looms For West Africa's Lion Population
January 9, 2014

Threat Of Extinction Looms For West Africa’s Lion Population

[ Watch the Video: Africa's Lions In Peril ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

The African lion is facing extinction across West Africa, with numbers dropping to as low as 250, according to a new report published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The African lion once thrived throughout the entire West African region, ranging from Senegal to Nigeria. However, a team of researchers led by Philipp Henschel, of the wild cat conservation group Panthera, shows just how endangered this species really is.

The new report predicts that there are only about 250 adult lions left in West Africa, and those lions are restricted to four isolated and imperiled populations. The team said that only one of these populations contains more than 50 lions.

Researchers spent six years collecting data for this report, covering eleven countries where lions were presumed to exist. The results came as a shock to the scientists involved in the study.

"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,” said Dr. Henschel in a statement.

Researchers discovered that West African lions now only live in five countries, including Senegal, Nigeria, Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The lion-species involved in the study are a genetically distinct species from the better-known lions found inside game parks in East and southern Africa. Previous studies showed that West African lions are closely related to the extinct “Barbary Lions” that were once be found in North Africa. West African lions are also similar to the last Asiatic lions that are barely surviving in India.

"West African lions have unique genetic sequences not found in any other lions, including in zoos or captivity," Dr. Christine Breitenmoser, the co-chair of the IUCN/SCC Cat Specialist Group, said in a statement. "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."

Lions and other wildlife in Africa are having to compete for land as the human population continues to grow and farmers are obtaining more land for their livestock herds to live on. Wild savannas have been converted to farms and grazing areas for livestock, and the lion’s natural prey is being hunted out and killed by farmers who fear for the loss of their herds.

"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,” National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and BCI co-founder, Dereck Joubert, said in a statement. “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."

Less than 35,000 lions remain in Africa to date, which is about 25 percent of the species’ original range. However, even more grim, is that the West African lion now survives in an area less than half the size of New York State, which is just one percent of its original historic range in the region.

"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,” Dr. Luke Hunter, Panthera's President and co-author of the paper, said in a statement. “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."