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11th January 2014

Lions are critically endangered in West Africa

A report published this week concludes that the 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.


west african lion
West African male lion. Credit: Jonas Van de Voorde (CC BY-SA 3.0)


Led by Dr. Philipp Henschel of conservation group Panthera, and co-authored by an international team from West Africa, the UK, Canada and the USA, this survey appears in the journal PLOS ONE. The report's sobering results represent a massive effort – taking six years and covering 11 countries where lions were presumed to exist in the last two decades. This new, highly detailed information builds on an earlier continent-wide review of lion status produced by Duke University to which Dr. Henschel also contributed. Both surveys were funded by National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative (BCI).

"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," explains Henschel. "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."

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" that once roamed North Africa, as well as to the last Asiatic lions surviving in India.


lions population map


"West African lions have unique genetic sequences not found in any other lions, including in zoos or captivity," explained Dr. Christine Breitenmoser, co-chair of the IUCN/SCC Cat Specialist Group, which determines the conservation status of wild cats around the world. "If we lose the lion in West Africa, we will lose a unique, locally adapted population found nowhere else. It makes their conservation even more urgent."

Lions have disappeared across Africa as human populations and their livestock herds have expanded, 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.

National Geographic explorer and BCI co-founder Dereck Joubert commented: "Every survey we do is inaccurate because as soon as you complete it, it is already out of date; the declines are so rapid. It is a terribly sad state of affairs when you can very accurately count the lions in an area because there are so few of them. This is critical work that again confirms that we are underestimating the rate of decline of lion populations and that the situation requires a global emergency intervention."

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 50,000 square kilometres – smaller than half the size of New York State – and only 1% of its original historic range in the region.

Panthera's President, Dr. Luke Hunter: "Lions have undergone a catastrophic collapse in West Africa. The countries that have managed to retain them are struggling with pervasive poverty and 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."


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