- Study has found that since 1990, lion populations in West, Central and East Africa have declined sharply, and some populations have gone extinct.
- Under current levels of conservation efforts, around 50 percent of these West, Central and East lion populations is likely be wiped out over the next two decades, researchers predict.
- Only four countries, all located in southern Africa — Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe — had lion populations that were either stable or increasing, study found.
The king of African savanna is in trouble. Across most of the African landscape, thousands of lions are disappearing at an alarming rate, according to a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Since 1990, lion populations in West, Central and East Africa have declined sharply, and some populations have even gone extinct, the study has found. Moreover, under current levels of conservation efforts, around 50 percent of these West, Central and East lion populations, is likely to be wiped out over the next two decades, researchers predict.
“While we know that lions are threatened in some areas, I think everyone underestimated the rate of decline that lions are experiencing,” co-author Luke Hunter, President and Chief Conservation Officer of Panthera, told Mongabay.
Lion experts from five institutions analyzed trends of 47 lion populations in Africa, and found that the big cats are the most imperiled in West and Central Africa where their populations are declining dramatically. Lion populations in East Africa, including those in lion stronghold like Maasai Mara in Kenya, are rapidly declining too.
Only four countries, all located in southern Africa — Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – have lion populations that are either stable or increasing, the team found.
“Outside of southern Africa and the single Indian population, we estimate lions have suffered a 50 percent decline since 1993,” Hunter said. “That is the same year I started studying lions in earnest and, back then, I simply could not have imagined lions would have disappeared so quickly from such massive areas of their range.”
In fact, almost all lion populations that once had over 500 individuals are declining, the authors write. Such dramatic loss of lions can have catastrophic effects.
“This is not just about less lions, it is about lions no longer playing a keystone role in functioning ecosystems,” lead author Hans Bauer of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, told Mongabay. “Lion trends are indicative of a deeper crisis that will eventually also affect species with lower requirements.”
Given the lions’ steep decline over the past few decades, the researchers recommend that “the lion be regionally uplisted to Endangered in Central and East Africa while populations in southern Africa meet the criteria for ‘Least Concern.’” West Africa’s lions are already regionally listed as critically endangered, and globally, the lion is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
An amalgamation of factors has been pushing lions towards extinction: loss of habitat, indiscriminate retaliatory killing of lions to protect humans and livestock, poorly regulated trophy hunting, and demand for traditional African and Chinese medicines, the authors write. Depletion of prey base affects lion populations too.
The study found, for example, that in East and West Africa where lion populations have declined, herbivore populations have plummeted as well. On the contrary, herbivore populations have increased in southern Africa as have lion populations.
In fact, every lion population in South Africa the researchers looked into, has been increasing. This, according to the team, is most likely a consequence of how wildlife is managed in the country. Most lion populations there are small, fenced, and intensively managed, and the reserves are well-funded, the authors write.
In contrast, insufficient management capacity and funding plague most other lion populated areas. Even trophy hunting, and photo-tourism “simply cannot generate the level of funding required to protect lions in immense landscapes,” Hunter said.
Moreover, reliable lion numbers from some remote and war-torn countries, such as South Sudan and Angola, are unavailable. “Fortunately that situation is changing and Panthera started the first lion surveys in Angola earlier this year, so we will soon have better information from there,” Hunter added.
Some governments “have also been resistant to allowing surveys and research, perhaps under the assumption that the lion is not endangered and does not need conservation attention,” he said. “I hope this paper convinces people that is a very dangerous assumption to make. Lion populations are almost certainly contracting and gradually winking out in areas where no-one is looking.”
Despite the lack of funding and resources, experts believe it is still possible to save the lions, even in large landscapes.
“The solutions boil down essentially to two main activities; helping pastoralists reduce conflict with lions, and increasing the protection of national parks and game reserves,” Hunter said. “Neither of these is mysterious or complicated, but implementing them at large scales requires a major commitment of people, expertise and funding.”
Lions are one of the most well-studied wild carnivores in the world. Over the past few decades, conservationists have drawn numerous conservation plans to protect the African icon. Yet, the lion seems to be spiralling towards extinction across most key regions.
“It might seem beyond belief that a creature as iconic as the lion could be tumbling towards extinction in so many areas, but surely this startling fact emphasizes the depth of the crisis in wildlife conservation,” David Macdonald of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. “If we can’t save lions, what on earth can we save? If any group of species is going to mobilise public opinion in support of conservation, surely it is the charismatic cats, with lions as their figurehead.”
- Bauer H, Chapron G, Nowell K, Henschel P, Funston P, Hunter LT, Macdonald DW, and Packer C (2015) Lion (Panthera leo) populations are declining rapidly across Africa, except in intensively managed areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.