By Miguel Llanos, NBC News
6 December 2012
Africa's lions are running out of habitat and some populations, especially those in West Africa, are running toward extinction, according to a study published Tuesday.
Using new satellite data, a research team at Duke University found that about 75 percent of Africa's savannahs were fragmented by farmers and other development in the last 50 years.
"Only 25 percent remains of an ecosystem that once was a third larger than the continental United States," co-author Stuart Pimm, a Duke conservation ecology professor, said in a statement issued with the study.
"The situation in West Africa is particularly dire," the experts wrote, noting that human populations have doubled there over the last three decades. Fewer than 500 lions remain in West Africa, the study estimated.
The team and a panel of lion experts used the savannah data to refine estimates of lion populations, which had ranged between 20,000 and 40,000 across Africa. Their estimate: 32,000 lions remain, down from an estimated 100,000 in 1960.
"Given that many now live in small, isolated populations, this trend will continue," the experts wrote in the study published in the peer-reviewed journal Biodiversity and Conservation.
"Lions are not going to go extinct, but they are indeed going extinct locally," Pimm told NBC News. "Those in West Africa are in particularly bad shape. It would be tragic if one could see lions only in a couple of places in Africa."
The study estimates that more than 6,000 lions are in populations that have "a very high risk of local extinction."
Only nine African countries have at least 1,000 lions, and five have likely lost all their lions since a 2002 study, the experts said. The biggest stronghold is in Tanzania, which has more than 40 percent of all African lions as well as a strong conservation program.
National Geographic, which funded the study, hopes to use the results to plan where to focus on saving lions.
"The research will help us better identify areas in which we can make a difference," said study co-author Luke Dollar, a former graduate student of Pimm's and now the grants director at National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.
The study estimated that some 24,000 lions are in "strongholds" -- particularly within national parks, where ecotourism can protect the animals while creating local jobs.
But even that designation isn't a guarantee, noted Pimm. "Some large parks in West Africa have lost all their lions and essentially all of their wildlife," he said. "There has to be a political commitment to protect wildlife and, of course, a recognition that viewing wildlife can bring in substantial revenues." […]