Less than 400 lions survive in West Africa and they could be extinct within a decade, according to a major survey published this week.
The shocking revelations are the result of a six-year survey covering 11 countries where lions were presumed to exist in the past two decades.
The Lion in West Africa is Critically Endangered was published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE and reveals there are now only an estimated 250 adult lions in four isolated and critically engandered populations. Only one group contains more than 50 lions.
They are now restricted to just one per cent of their former range.
Habitat destruction for livestock, which has also reduced prey levels, is partly to blame for the decline, as well as pastoralists killing lions to protect their herds.
The research was led by Dr Philipp Henschel, survey co-ordinator of international conservation group Panthera and Dr Lauren Coad, research fellow at The University of Queensland was a co-author of the paper.
The group have called for West Africa’s lions to be placed on the critically endangered list.
“When we set out in 2006 to survey all the lions of West Africa, the best reports suggested they survived in 21 protected areas,” Dr Henschel said.
“We surveyed all of them. 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.”
The team discovered that West African lions now survive in only five countries, Senegal, Nigeria and a single group on the shared borders of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.
They are genetically distinct from lions in East and Southern Africa and more closely related to the extinct “Barbary Lions”, which once roamed North Africa, and the last Asiatic lions surviving in India.
The countries where lions survive are among the world’s poorest and the paper found that the populations in National Parks where they remain were all in decline.
In Nigeria, numbers dropped from an estimated 44 lions in 2009 to 34 in 2011.
In Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park, where the critically endangered Western giant eland (an antelope) and African wild dog “continuing calamitous declines” in prey species are expected to cause the same collapse in lion numbers.
Large mammal populations in eleven West African protected areas declined by an average of 85 per cent between 1970 and 2005 – the biggest drop in Africa.
“Our findings suggest that many of the West African protected areas still supporting lion populations are chronically underfunded and understaffed,” Dr Coad said.
“Many protected areas evaluated for this study did not have the capacity to undertake anti-poaching patrols, and as a result lion populations within their boundaries are under threat from poachers, who target both lions and their prey.”
Panthera President Luke Hunter, also a co-author, said “a catastrophic collapse” of lion numbers means that without immediate action, they could disappear within five years.
“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,” he said.
Panthera says that fewer than 35,000 lions remain in Africa today, in about 25 per cent of the species’ original range.
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