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Shocking Study Finds Lions are Nearly Extinct in West Africa

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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West African lionPhysically 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.

Devastating Realization

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.

But their work was not completely in vain. They did find spoors, tracks and other evidence of lions in the four sites and ever-so-rarely laid eyes on an actual lion. Henschel says the most rewarding encounter occurred in Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park. They had been searching the area for more than a month under extreme heat—”over 95 degrees Fahrenheit even at night”— when they finally spotted a big cat. “What says it all, concerning the rarity of the lion in the park, is that not one of my four survey team members, all long-serving national park service staff, had ever seen a lion in their lives. It was extremely rewarding to see how excited they all were to finally have seen the animal that is also a symbol of national pride in Senegal.”

The Counts

The researchers found the most West African lions in W-Arly-Pendjari, a complex of parks that crosses the borders of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, which they estimate to hold about 350 big cats. The three other sites in Senegal and Nigeria are each estimated to have fewer than 50 lions. None of the sites are anywhere near each other, as you can see in the map below:

west african lion range map

(The map also shows the sites of two possible but unconfirmed lion sites in Guinea. No lions have been seen there in more than 10 years, but the authors write in their paper that “credible reports of vocalizations suggest they may still be present.”)

In addition to their low numbers, the lions also live at a very low density of about 1 lion per 100 square kilometers. Lions in East Africa live in populations fifteen times denser. Despite this stretched out distribution, Henschel reports the good news that cubs were observed, both in person and via their spoor, meaning the cats are finding each other well enough to mate. “Lions at all four sites where the species was confirmed present are still reproducing successfully,” he says.

What Comes Next?

“Now that this massive survey effort has been concluded,” Henschel says, “we finally know where lions remain and where we need to invest our efforts to save them. This was a vital first step, but the real work of saving them is only just beginning. Even the protected areas that retain lions are understaffed and underequipped. We intend to assist lion range countries in improving management effectiveness of the areas containing lions by helping them to increase the numbers, expertise, and operating budgets of enforcement personnel in protected areas with lions.” He says that will help to “curb the killing of lion prey and illegal incursions into protected areas by pastoralists.”

Beyond that, the genetic material collected from lion droppings during the surveys will be assessed to determine the animals’ genetic diversity and health. Along those same lines, the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, which determines the conservation status of wild cats around the world, is also tackling the thorny issue of lion taxonomy, which may result in new classification for the West African lion. The IUCN currently lists the West African lion as a population, not a separate subspecies, and considers it to be endangered. “If West African lions were indeed classified as a separate subspecies by IUCN/SSC, we would recommend listing them as Critically Endangered,” Henschel says.

Panthera president Luke Hunter, who co-authored the new study, also hopes that the world will take notice of these lions, which have been ignored until now. “Lions have undergone a catastrophic collapse in West Africa,” he said in a press release. “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.” Whether that aid and assistance will materialize in one of the poorest and least supported regions on earth remains to be seen.

Previously in Extinction Countdown:

Photo: A male lion in photographed in 2012 in Pendjari National Park during Panthera’s survey of the W-Arly-Pendjari complex. © Philip Henschel/Panthera. Used with permission

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. danielojost 6:01 pm 01/8/2014

    How about feeding South Africa’s corrupt “Minister of Environment” Edna Molewa to the lions?

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  2. 2. dbtinc 8:27 am 01/9/2014

    Well, species come and go … evolution is what it’s called.

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  3. 3. carboncosm 10:24 am 01/9/2014

    @dbtinc – yeah, ‘evolution’ with a little help from us.

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  4. 4. David Cummings 10:27 am 01/9/2014

    This is a very sad story.

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  5. 5. McAndrew 8:18 pm 01/9/2014

    Sometimes the grief of being alive at this time, with such tragedies bearing down on the world without eliciting a worldwide state of emergency, is almost unbearable. No, no, no…

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  6. 6. EX - FIELD MUSEUM 10:36 am 01/10/2014


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  7. 7. outsidethebox 11:21 am 01/10/2014

    “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.”

    Given the Fulani’s eminently practical solution that helps them eke out a very hardscrabble life, I think it’s accurate to state this whole hang wringing meme over a sub-species of lion is pretty much what is known as a “first world problem”

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  8. 8. David Cummings 1:56 pm 01/10/2014

    outsidethebox, I don’t know about hang-wringing memes or “first world problems” but I do see your point that we are talking about poor people trying to survive. Still, it’s a sad story. I hate to see these lions go, sub-species or not.

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  9. 9. allbuss 6:24 pm 01/10/2014

    Keep outlawing hunting around Africa, this will ensure more species will go extinct. Once hunting is made illegal, the animals no longer have economic value and are no longer protected. They are either driven off the land to make room for farms and cows or killed. If legal regulated hunting was allowed, and each animal is worth $20,000 or more and will bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars of associated economic benefits to the surrounding area, they will be protected, populations well managed, and habitat would be guaranteed.

    I know it is a tough reality for Liberals to face, but this economic REALITY. People need money to eat, if animals are not worth any money and are using up resources that can be used to make money, they will be eliminated.

    If you ever want to make the common cow extinct, outlaw killing them. They would disappear from farms overnight replaced by other money making animals or plants. Any survivors would then be driven off the land they once lived on. The endangered species list is a death sentence for large land mammals.

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  10. 10. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:39 am 01/11/2014

    I’ve written about it before — some well-controlled hunting can sometimes bring some economic value to a species. But the same thing can be provided by eco-tourism and cameras. And while hunters have kept some species alive — so they can keep killing them, of course — they have also driven numerous other species into extinction, so their record isn’t all that good.

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  11. 11. Wayne Williamson 12:30 pm 01/11/2014

    This report sounds like crap. It has nothing to compare it to. How can you state something is going extinct with out knowing what the population has been over time.

    My only thought is that it sounds like the populations they are currently reporting is what the population has always been.

    Ok, one more thought, they should probably do some kind of yearly census to determine if there really is an issue.

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  12. 12. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 2:08 pm 01/11/2014

    Read the study.

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  13. 13. Wayne Williamson 3:39 pm 01/11/2014

    John, I can only assume you are replying to me. Please provide a link to the study…

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  14. 14. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:55 am 01/12/2014

    It’s in the article, Wayne.

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  15. 15. babby 10:47 am 01/14/2014

    If lions are “the symbol of national pride” in Senegal, why does the slaughter continue? I can understand why native herdsmen want to protect their herds but why can’t Senegal set aside land just for the lions & fence it in, or something? Is there not enough land to provide habitat for both lions & human herds?

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  16. 16. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 11:07 am 01/14/2014

    Perception-wise, there is a difference between a national symbol and an individual predator. For another thing, the lion killings, although bad enough, are less of a threat than the massive reduction in available prey.

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  17. 17. Denham 5:18 pm 01/14/2014

    I ask why is he most prevalent animal specie on the planet so afraid of extinction, Soon there will be 7 billion pairs of legs walking the land looking for food when it they stopped breeding food would not be such a problem. The more there are human lives the less valuable they are as individuals or s groups. If we don’t control population there will be very few and poorly developed humans left on this planet.

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  18. 18. Denham 5:26 pm 01/14/2014

    Denham again
    Where has this great human mind we all seem to have in our heads been hiding. If it cannot see and think then it is more a menace than a boon to this planet. Over population will kill of us all and rightly so. Think or die. Reduce the population and increase the value of every individual.

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  19. 19. hkraznodar 5:40 pm 01/14/2014

    @Allbuss – Listen up you screw head! There are just as many liberals that hunt as there are conservatives that hunt. My father is liberal, my sister an outright socialist, and my nephew in law so leftist that even my sister grumbles about his politics. They all hunt.

    I’m a pragmatic socialist (hard core socialism is an abject failure and right wing conservatives are Satanic but they are right that you can’t spend money you don’t have). I don’t like guns but I will die to defend the American right to hunt for food or target shoot for sport.

    Please leave your idiotic politics in the gutter where they belong.

    @Wayne Williamson – Since the known range of the West African lion is a mere fraction of what it once was I’d have to state quite confidently that unless the West African lion now lives in apartment buildings close to grocery stores, the population has fallen catastrophically.

    The absence of a prior scientific study is meaningless unless you are trying to say that the dodo bird and passenger pigeon never existed. A current count would not find any and neither had a valid population study before going extinct. I suppose you deny all critters found only as fossils since there were no population studies when they were alive.

    @everyone – If I have to choose between a big cat that may find me tasty and feeding my children then it is an easy choice. The Fulani may have a lifestyle I dislike but they may not choose a modern one even if by some miracle they had that option. Not every one has to live exactly like us and have the same opinions to qualify as human or be worthy of basic respect. I want to save the lions but not at the expense of the survival of Fulani children.

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  20. 20. denisosu 6:26 pm 01/14/2014

    The problem is the poverty of the people. If we in the West, as we should, help everyone to have a decent standard of living, then we can start talking to them about preserving wild animals.

    If you’re not convinced by the simple fact that it’s the right thing to do, then convince yourself by considering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food, security, health, etc. are all at the bottom – until these needs are satisfied, we cannot expect people to worry about items at the top of the pyramid, which is where “conserving wildlife” belongs.

    Our response should be to ask ourselves how it’s possible in the 21st century that there are still people whose most basic needs are not being met … and if we can address that, then we’ll also save the lions!

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  21. 21. Gaelle 1:35 pm 01/17/2014

    i hope we become extinct soon so may be some animals can survive

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  22. 22. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:30 am 01/22/2014

    The problem is ineffective local conservation, not poverty. There are equally poor or poorer countries which keep their big predators, and countries which became rich and successful without eliminating its wildlife. Europe and USA still have brown bears and mountain lions.

    One wasted opportunity is ban of exporting live lions to conservation-minded zoos. Lions breed very easily in zoos (they even bred in circus wagons and menageries) and can be reintroduced to the wild. There is no objective reason why this population needs to go extinct.

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  23. 23. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:35 am 01/22/2014

    Less than 400 lions in West Africa is puny compared to the brown bears, wolves and lynxes in Europe, or mountain lions, grizzlies and gray wolves in North America, which are in five- or six-digit numbers.

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