The results of a six-year study published yesterday in PLoS One have found that the elusive West African lion must now be considered critically endangered. The lions were previously believed to inhabit 21 protected areas across western Africa, but after intensive, exhausting observation, conservation group Panthera found that the lions remained in only four of those areas, with an estimated total population of 400.

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Of the roughly 400 West African lions remaining, around 250 of those are believed to be of mature breeding age. The lions are dispersed between four completely unconnected areas; 350 of the lions are living within the W-Arly-Pendjari parks that straddle the borders of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. An additional 50 lions are believed to live in parks in Senegal and Nigeria.

The decline of these relatively small, genetically distinct lions is certainly alarming, but as Scientific American points out, it is part of a sad trend that is causing devastation to many big cat populations. The publication explains “The populations of other large mammal species declined an average of 85 percent in West Africa between 1970 and 2005, mostly to feed the voracious demand of the bushmeat trade,” while lions are also killed as a perceived threat to cattle herds and as a general pest.

Scientific American continues:

“The 11 nations of West Africa are among the poorest on earth and include six of the world’s least developed countries. The countries in the region have no money for conservation, and the study found that most of the protected areas that were expected to contain lions had little to no enforcement, security patrols or management. National parks are frequently overrun by tens of thousands of domesticated cattle. [Lion Program Survey Coordinator Philipp] Henschel describes many of the so-called protected areas as “paper parks”—conservation sites in name only.”

The West African lion is particularly unique; Dr. Christine Breitenmoser, the co-chair of the IUCN/SCC Cat Specialist Group explained in apress release“West African lions have unique genetic sequences not found in any other lions, including in zoos or captivity. 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.”

It’s a devastating state of affairs, but the survey did find that lions in the four remaining areas are continuing to reproduce, and now that their locations have been determined, more focused conservation efforts can conceivably be made, but the process is far from easy. Panthera’s President, Dr. Luke Hunter, explains “The countries that have managed to retain them are struggling with pervasive poverty and very 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.

+ Panthera

Via Scientific American

All images © Panthera