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 School of Geography and the Environment

8 January 2014

Copyright: Philipp Henschel/Panthera

Lions are critically endangered in West Africa

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 and severely imperiled populations. Only one of those populations contains more than 50 lions.

Led by Panthera’s survey coordinator Dr Philipp Henschel and co-authored by an international team including Oxford University’s Prof. David MacDonald and Dr Lauren Coad, the paper The lion in West Africa is critically endangered was published today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The report’s sobering results represent a massive survey effort taking six years and covering eleven countries where lions were presumed to exist in the last two decades.

Panthera’s Dr. Philipp Henschel explained, "When we set out in 2006 to survey all the lions of West Africa, the best reports suggested they still survived in 21 protected areas. We surveyed all of them, representing the best remaining lion habitat in West Africa. 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."

Copyright: Philipp Henschel/Panthera The team discovered that West African lions now survive in only 5 countries, Senegal, Nigeria and 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. "West African lions have unique genetic sequences not found in any other lions, including in zoos or captivity’ explained Dr Christine Breitenmoser, the co-chair of the IUCN/SCC Cat Specialist Group which determines the conservation status of the wild cats around the world. "If we lose the lion in West Africa, we will lose a unique, locally adapted population found no-where else. It makes their conservation even more urgent".

Lions have disappeared across Africa as human populations and their livestock herds have grown, competing for land with lions and other wildlife. Wild savannas are converted for agriculture and cattle, the lion’s natural prey is hunted out and lions are killed by pastoralists fearing the loss of their herds.

Copyright: Philipp Henschel/Panthera 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. "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."

Dereck Joubert of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, which provided funding for the surveys commented; "Every survey we do is notoriously inaccurate because as soon as you do it, it is dated already; the declines are so rapid. It’s a terribly sad state of affairs when you can very accurately count the lions in an area because there are so few. This is critical work that confirms, scientifically, once again that we are underestimating the rate of decline and will require a global emergency intervention."

Copyright: Philipp Henschel/Panthera 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 less than 50,000km2- smaller than half the size of New York State- and only 1% of its original historic range in the region.

Panthera’s President Luke Hunter co-authored the paper and stated "Lions have undergone a catastrophic collapse in West Africa. The countries that have managed to retain them are struggling with pervasive poverty and very little funding for conservation. 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."

More about Oxford's work on protected area effectiveness

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. As part of a 3 year research project, funded by the Oxford Martin Institute, Dr. Coad has been using management evaluations by protected area managers, collected for over 6,000 protected areas worldwide, to investigate how many of the world’s protected areas have the capacity to protect the biodiversity and habitats within their borders, and how many are ‘paper parks’, with insufficient funding or staff to combat the threats to biodiversity.

This study of West African lion populations demonstrates the importance of creating systems of well managed protected areas for conserving biodiversity. Using management data collected as part of the global study, we found that protected areas still containing lions in West Africa had significantly higher management budgets than those where lions are now absent. By analyzing protected area management globally we can identify priority areas - such as protected areas with low management capacity in biodiversity hotspots – and prioritise our future global conservation efforts.