West African Lion Nearly Extinct: Study Calls For 'Urgent Intervention' To Save Them

By Ben Wolford on January 9, 2014 2:09 PM EST

West African Lions
West African Lions are critical endangered, a new study found. (Photo: Shutterstock)

An alarming new study has found that lions in West Africa are nearly extinct, with fewer than 300 estimated to be of breeding age. "Interventions to save West African lions are urgently required," wrote the authors of the paper, published Wednesday in PLOS ONE. But what's killing them off? And is it too late to save them?

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At this point, the African lion as a species has dwindled below 36,000 individuals, and their ranks are spread over only a quarter of the ground they used to inhabit. But in the western corner of the continent, geographically isolated from other parts, their demise is approaching irreversible levels. And the researchers say that would be tragic for species diversity — the West African lion, it turns out, has begun to develop genes unique from lions elsewhere. For them to die would be a blow to genetic research and potentially a lost new species.

West African lions face another predator: humans

The cards have been stacked the lion for some time. To Americans, lions are perhaps the most admirable of the big cats; to locals, they're enormous vermin. Philipp Henschel was the lead author of the study, which was accomplished through painstaking surveys, often on foot. In the course of their research, they ran into and interviewed a lot of people, including poachers and cattle herders. "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," Henschel told Scientific American. "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."

In countries where rule of law is a relatively new concept, lions have become the victims of scarce enforcement of conservation laws. The rules of wildlife preserves are ignored, and the Scientific American article refers to "paper parks" — a park only on paper, a shooting range in real life. Henschel says it was uncommon to find the kinds of people sympathetic to wildlife: "Encounters with aggressive poachers, and, in some countries, rebel groups, were frequent."

To conduct the survey, Henschel and his team traveled to 21 locations thought to have lion populations. Only four sites remained. One habitat supported fewer than five lions. All told, they estimate that 406 lions are alive right now in West Africa. Less than 250 of them are old enough to mate.

Can anyone save them?

Henschel seems to believe it's not too late to do something to reverse the problem. Though the paper's title is "The Lion In West Africa Is Critically Endangered," that doesn't mean it's extinct. He says education, new taxonomy and greater investments in law enforcement could reverse the trend.

"If we can find sufficient funding, in cooperation with national authorities and the international community, then I think there is hope," Henschel told National Geographic. "There are committed individuals on the ground, but they lack funding." The nations are largely impoverished. Security for people is often lacking, let alone security for lions. And the locals are less concerned about the scarcity of a pest that kills livestock. But Henschel hopes the paper will spur a greater commitment from policymakers.

To that end, he also said there ought to be a recognition from the scientific community that West African lions are a distinct subspecies. According to one expert quoted in National Geographic, West African lions are more genetically distant from other African lions than Siberian tigers are from Indian tigers. To name a new species could further incentivize funding. Whatever happens, Herschel says we've only got about five years to solve the problem or lose the lions. "Maybe even less," he said.

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