You'd Think a Large Predator Like a West African Lion Could Easily Defend Its Species, But...

African Lion

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to a new study, less than 250 adult lions still exist in West Africa. Those that remain live in four isolated populations and are confined to just one percent of their historical range. According to researchers, without intensive conservation efforts, within five years, three of the four populations could become extinct.
  • The researchers conducted a six-year survey of the lions. They learned that today, the lions exist in only five of the 11 countries they studied. They also discovered the lions are genetically distinct from those in other regions of Africa and are more closely related to the extinct Barbary Lions of North Africa, as well as to the remaining Asiatic lions of India.
  • Threats to the West African lions include a lack of genetic diversity, loss of habitat to pastureland, depletion of natural prey by hunters, and confrontations with farmers concerned with protecting livestock.
  • Conservation efforts have been non-existent, in part because West African governments don’t have the resources to dedicate to lion conservation, and international research institutions and conservation organizations focus exclusively on the game parks in east and southern Africa.
  • The study authors hope the fact that West African lions are genetically distinct from other African lions will give them special conservation status, which will help to mobilize conservation efforts. They are also calling for the lion to be classified as critically endangered in West Africa.

By Dr. Becker

According to a study published earlier in the year, fewer than 250 adult lions may be left in West Africa, and those remaining few exist in four isolated populations, confined to only about one percent of the territory they once roamed. A lack of genetic diversity coupled with a dramatically reduced range of only about half the size of New York State, means it will be very difficult for the lions to produce healthy prides in the future.

The authors of the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE in January, warn “Interventions to save West African lions are urgently required.”1 Without intensive conservation efforts, according to the researchers, three of the four West African lion populations could become extinct in the next five years, and the one remaining population will continue to decline.

Risks to West African Lions

The study, which was led by Panthera, a global wildcat conservation organization, is the result of six years of research carried out between October 2006 and May 2012, and was conducted in 11 countries where lions have lived over the last 20 years. The researchers learned that West African lions now exist in only five countries, including Senegal and Nigeria, and one population inhabiting the shared borders of Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso.

West African lions are genetically diverse from lions in east and southern Africa. Recent research suggests they are closely related to the extinct Barbary Lions of North Africa, as well as to the remaining Asiatic lions of India.

Because of their isolation, the lions are severely limited in their choice of mates, which means they reproduce with close relatives. This level of inbreeding decreases the genetic health of offspring, lowering sperm counts and increasing the number of abnormal sperm in male lions. 

In addition to their lack of genetic diversity and reduced range, wild lands in West Africa have been converted to pastureland, and hunters have depleted the lions’ traditional prey of antelopes, gazelles, wildebeest, buffalos, and zebras. Humans have also gotten into conflicts with the big cats to protect livestock, further reducing their numbers.

Why Preservation of the West African Lion Has Been Largely Ignored

West African governments don’t have the resources to dedicate to lion conservation, and also feel that wildlife tourism in other regions of Africa is of no benefit to them.

Meanwhile, international research institutions and conservation organizations tend to focus exclusively on the game parks in east and southern Africa.

According to study co-author Dr. Lauren Coad of the University of Oxford:

"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."

The fact that West African lions are genetically distinct from other African lions should afford them special conservation status. Recognition that West Africa populations are unique should clear the way for the financial investment needed to mobilize conservation efforts.

The researchers are also calling for the lion to be classified as critically endangered in West Africa.