Lions may soon disappear entirely from West Africa unless conservation efforts improve, a new study predicts.
Lions once ranged from Senegal to Nigeria, a distance of more than 1,500 miles. The new survey found an estimated total of only 250 adult lions occupying less than one percent of that historic range. The lions form four isolated populations: one in Senegal; two in Nigeria; and a fourth on the borders of Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Only that last population has more than 50 lions.
“It was really not known that the status of the lion was so dire in West Africa,” study co-author Philipp Henschel, the Gabon-based survey coordinator for the big cat conservation group Panthera, told National Geographic. “In many countries it was not known that there were no more lions in those areas because there had been no funding to conduct surveys.”
Henschel and his colleagues built on previous work by Duke Universityresearchers, which like the new survey received funding from National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. The new survey covered 21 protected areas in 11 countries in West Africa.
“All of these still contain suitable, intact lion habitat, and we thought all would contain lions,” said Henschel. “But instead we found only four isolated and severely imperiled populations.”
A Separate Subspecies?
The taxonomy of the West African lion is currently being reviewed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based on recent genetic studies that suggest it may be a distinct subspecies from the more familiar lions of southern and eastern Africa, which are thought to number less than 35,000. Henschel said he supports the naming of a new subspecies. It would most likely be designated as “critically endangered,” which would encourage more international support for conservation efforts, he said.
West African lions are lighter in build than the ones in East and South Africa. They appear to have longer legs, and the males have thinner manes.
“Lions in West Africa are genetically more different from lions in East and Southern Africa than Siberian tigers are from Indian tigers,” said Hans de Iongh, a lion researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who did not participate in the new study. West African lions appear to be more similar to the extinct “Barbary lions” that once roamed North Africa, and to the last Asiatic lions surviving in India, said Henschel.
West African lions also tend to form much smaller prides. “In East and South Africa, you can have prides of up to 40 individuals, but in West Africa prides are usually one male, one to two females, and their dependent offspring,” said Henschel.
West Africa is more heavily forested than other parts of the continent. Historically, lions did penetrate into the dense woods, but in recent years they have been largely confined to more open woodlands and savannah-like lands in protected areas. Overall, the soils are poorer and prey is less abundant in the west, “which probably explains the lower pride sizes,” Henschel said.