Shocking study finds lions are nearly extinct in West Africa – ‘It was devastating to realize that no lion sign could be found in so many areas’Posted by Jim at Thursday, January 23, 2014
By John R. Platt
8 January 2014
(Scientific American) – 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.
The research team conducted in-person surveys in 13 of the 21 protected areas—each of which was larger than 500 square kilometers—and relied on field reports from scientists studying other species in the eight smaller sites. Although some of the work could be done from vehicles, that wasn’t an option in many sites. “Due to the complete lack of roads in some protected areas, we had to conduct all survey work on foot in those areas, hiking up to 600 kilometers through rough terrain during individual surveys,” Henschel says. The research was also sometimes quite dangerous. “Encounters with aggressive poachers, and, in some countries, rebel groups, were frequent.”
The human encounters also illustrated some of the dangers the lions face (the cats are often killed as pests). “In many of the protected areas we surveyed, we also conducted interviews with various groups about the potential presence of lions,” Henschel says. “One group we targeted for interviews were herders of the Fulani ethnic group, which is the largest migratory pastoralist group in Africa, and extends across all of West Africa. We often encountered Fulani herders and their cattle deep inside protected areas, and individuals interviewed almost uniformly admitted to carrying poison to kill any lions that attacked their herds.”
Even harder than the travel was the fact that the researchers rarely saw evidence of any lions. “It was devastating to realize that despite all this physical effort, despite weeks spent searching for spoor, no lion sign could be found in so many areas,” he says. [more]
ABSTRACT: The African lion has declined to <35,000 individuals occupying 25% of its historic range. The situation is most critical for the geographically isolated populations in West Africa, where the species is considered regionally endangered. Elevating their conservation significance, recent molecular studies establish the genetic distinctiveness of West and Central African lions from other extant African populations. Interventions to save West African lions are urgently required. However formulating effective conservation strategies has been hampered by a lack of data on the species' current distribution, status, and potential management deficiencies of protected areas (PAs) harboring lions. Our study synthesized available expert opinion and field data to close this knowledge gap, and formulate recommendations for the conservation of West African lions. We undertook lion surveys in 13 large (>500 km2) PAs and compiled evidence of lion presence/absence for a further eight PAs. All PAs were situated within Lion Conservation Units, geographical units designated as priority lion areas by wildlife experts at a regional lion conservation workshop in 2005. Lions were confirmed in only 4 PAs, and our results suggest that only 406 (273–605) lions remain in West Africa, representing <250 mature individuals. Confirmed lion range is estimated at 49,000 km2, or 1.1% of historical range in West Africa. PAs retaining lions were larger than PAs without lions and had significantly higher management budgets. We encourage revision of lion taxonomy, to recognize the genetic distinctiveness of West African lions and highlight their potentially unique conservation value. Further, we call for listing of the lion as critically endangered in West Africa, under criterion C2a(ii) for populations with <250 mature individuals. Finally, considering the relative poverty of lion range states in West Africa, we call for urgent mobilization of investment from the international community to assist range states to increase management effectiveness of PAs retaining lions.