9 january 2014

Lions are 'critically endangered' in West Africa

Science

A male lion in Pendjari National Park, West Africa (Image: Philipp Henschel/Panthera)

A report published today concludes that the African lion is facing extinction across the entire West African region.

The West African lion once ranged continuously from Senegal to Nigeria, but the new paper reveals there are now only an estimated 250 adult lions, restricted to four isolated populations. Only one of those populations contains more than 50 lions. 

The paper, published in the journal PLOS One, was led by Panthera's survey coordinator Dr Philipp Henschel and co-authored by an international team including Oxford University's Professor David Macdonald and Dr Lauren Coad. It is the result of a six-year survey, covering 11 countries where lions were presumed to exist over the last 20 years.

The team discovered that West African lions now survive in only five countries: Senegal and Nigeria, with a single trans-frontier population on the shared borders of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso. They are genetically distinct from the better-known lions of famous game parks in East and southern Africa. Recent molecular research shows they are closely related to the extinct 'Barbary Lions' which once roamed North Africa, as well as to the last Asiatic lions surviving in India.

Co-author Dr Lauren Coad, Oxford Martin research fellow at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, emphasized the need for international funding and support for West Africa's protected areas. She said: 'Our findings suggest that many of the West African protected areas still supporting lion populations are chronically underfunded and understaffed. 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.'

Today, fewer than 35,000 lions remain in Africa in about 25% of the species' original range. In West Africa, the lion now survives in an area smaller than half the size of New York State and only 1% of its original historic range in the region.

Professor David Macdonald said: 'Conservationists have suspected that the plight of West African lions was worrying. Our work reveals this was wrong – it's catastrophic. These results demonstrate that the time for hopeful hand-wringing has passed, and intervention on a scale requiring major international agencies is essential.'

In partnership with UNEP-WCMC and the University of Queensland, Oxford University research fellow Dr Lauren Coad has been investigating how well the world's protected areas are being managed. Dr Coad has been using management evaluations by protected area managers, collected for over 10,000 protected areas worldwide, to investigate the world's protected areas to assess how many are 'paper parks', with insufficient funding or staff to combat the threats to biodiversity.