January 9, 2006

Urgent action needed to save Africa lion

By Ed Stoddard

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The "King of the Beasts" may not
rule beyond this century unless urgent action is taken to
protect remaining lion habitat and halt conflict between humans
and the big cats, a leading conservationist said on Monday.

"Lions have lost 80 percent of their historic range in the
last century and we don't want the next century to be a
repeat," said Kristin Nowell, a member of the cat specialist
group of the World Conservation Union, the world's largest
network of conservation groups.

She was in Johannesburg for a six-day workshop devoted to
strategies for lion conservation in southern and east Africa
which began on Sunday. It follows a similar workshop in
Cameroon in October on lions in west and central Africa.

Lions are considered to be threatened everywhere in Africa
but are at particular risk in its densely populated west.

Nowell said one of the key challenges was getting an
accurate take on lion numbers and distribution.

"We are refining our knowledge of the status and
distribution of the African lion and trying to identify the
most important areas for lion conservation," she said.

Nowell said there were believed to be 34 lion range states
in Africa and while exact numbers were patchy there was little
doubt that the predator was doing far better in the east and
south of the continent than elsewhere.

"The estimates are that there are between 23,000 to 40,000
lions in Africa. Of that, only 2,000 to 4,000 are in west and
central Africa and the rest in are east and southern Africa."

"Lions are found everywhere except for the desert and the
rainforest but we have big concerns about the populations in
west and central Africa," she said.

Nowell said in that region, most of the lion populations
were small and isolated, which raised concerns about the size
of the gene pool. Small numbers also meant that the populations
were vulnerable to disease outbreaks and other sudden stresses.

Much of west Africa has dense human populations and the
bulk of the lion habitat there has been turned into farmland.

She said a priority was to improve the state of the lion's
prey base. "If there is nothing for them to eat they turn to
livestock and people too occasionally ... One of our objectives
is to come up with strategies to reduce lion/human conflict."

Nowell said one avenue being pursued was to transplant
successful lion trophy hunting programs in Tanzania, Zimbabwe
and South Africa to other countries.

"As long as trophy hunting is done sustainably and doesn't
affect the viability of the lion population then there is quite
a lot of support for it among range states," she said. "It
helps to raise money for conservation and gives local people an
incentive to have lions living in their neighborhood."

Outside of Africa the only wild lion population is confined
to the Gir forest in India.