27th December 2015
Lions added to endangered species list
In response to the alarming decline of lion populations in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed two lion subspecies as endangered and threatened. Without action to protect them, African lions could see their populations halved by 2035.
This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced it will list two lion subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Panthera leo leo – located in India and western and central Africa – will be listed as endangered, while Panthera leo melanochaita – found in eastern and southern Africa – will be listed as threatened.
In the last 20 years, lion populations have declined by 43% due to a combination of habitat loss, loss of prey base, trophy hunting, poaching for skins and uses in Chinese traditional medicine, and retaliatory killing of lions by a growing human population. The killing of Cecil the lion in July of this year served to further highlight this issue. Coupled with inadequate financial and other resources for countries to effectively manage protected areas, the impact on lions in the wild has been substantial. Having once been present in south-eastern Europe and throughout much of the Middle East and India, the animals have now lost 85% of their historic range, as shown on the map below.
Their numbers could be halved again by 2035, according to a recent study in the journal PNAS: "Many lion populations are either now gone or expected to disappear within the next few decades, to the extent that the intensively managed populations in southern Africa may soon supersede the iconic savannah landscapes in East Africa as the most successful sites for lion conservation," the study said.
In 2011, the USFWS received a petition to list Panthera leo leo as endangered under the ESA. In 2014, the agency published a 12-month finding and agreed to list the subspecies as threatened with a special rule under section 4(d) of the ESA. Based on newly available scientific information on the genetics and taxonomy of lions, the agency assessed the status of the entire lion species and subsequently changed its earlier finding.
The new science resolved that the western and central populations of African lion are more genetically related to the Asiatic lion. These lions are now considered the same subspecies, P. l. leo. There are only about 1,400 of these lions remaining; 900 in Africa and just 523 in India. Considering the size and distribution of the populations, the current trends and the severity of the threats, the agency has found that this subspecies now meets the definition of "endangered" under the ESA.
The other subspecies – Panthera leo melanochaita – likely numbers between 17,000-19,000 and is found across southern and eastern Africa. The agency determined that this subspecies is less vulnerable and is not currently in danger of extinction. However, although lion numbers in southern Africa are increasing overall, they are declining significantly in some regions, due to various ongoing threats. As a result, the agency finds this subspecies meets the definition of a "threatened" species under the ESA.
With an endangered listing, imports of P. l. leo will now be prohibited – except in certain rare cases, such as when it can be found that the import will enhance the survival of the species. To strengthen conservation measures for the threatened subspecies P. l. melanochaita, a new permitting mechanism will regulate the import of all P. l. melanochaita parts and products into the USA. This process will ensure that any imported specimens are legally obtained in range countries as part of a scientifically sound management program that benefits the subspecies in the wild. A third and final rule will enable the agency to support changes that strengthen the governance and accountability of conservation programs in other nations.
Protected areas are vital to the future survival of lions; and the building of corridors or funnelling mechanisms between protected areas is equally critical so that lions can be directed to other suitable habitat, away from potential conflict areas. It takes around $2,000 per square kilometre per year to properly protect these animals in Africa. Scientists from both the USA and the UK have, in recent years, begun collaborating to better understand how lions move across the African landscape and to model ways to conserve genetic diversity and populations across the continent.
“The lion is one of the planet’s most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage,” said USFWS Director Dan Ashe. “If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, then it’s up to all of us – not just the people of Africa and India – to take action.”