Across Africa, the mighty lion is in decline. Under pressure from illegal hunters and loss of habitat, the lions’ population has slipped to less than 35,000 across territory that represents only 25 percent of its historic range.

The picture’s even worse for lions in West Africa, according to a study published this week.

Lion_in_masai_mara Wikimedia

Lions are in decline across Africa, and on the verge of extinction in West Africa. (Photo: Wikimedia)

There, researchers found that lions have dwindled to critically endangered levels with only an estimated 400 still roaming what was once a a well-populated territory for lions. Only 250 or so of that number were considered to be of breeding age.

In the study, experts sought to define the lion’s modern range and take their census in West Africa. They had hoped to find them living in 21 areas across 11 nations, areas called out for the study because they represented the West African lion’s historical range. But after five years, lions could be confirmed to occupy only four of the study areas, in pockets in Niger and Senegal, leaving the study team bitterly disappointed.

“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,” explained Panthera’s Lion Program Survey Coordinator, Dr. Philipp Henschel, who led the study, The lion in West Africa is critically endangered, published in PLOS One.

“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 determined that the West African lion has characteristics that make it distinct from lions in Eastern Africa, and called for stronger conservation programs.

“We encourage revision of lion taxonomy, to recognize the genetic distinctiveness of West African lions and highlight their potentially unique conservation value,” they wrote in their findings. “Further, we call for listing of the lion as critically endangered in West Africa, under criterion C2a(ii) for populations with <250 mature individuals. Finally, considering the relative poverty of lion range states in West Africa, we call for urgent mobilization of investment from the international community to assist range states to increase management effectiveness of PAs

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retaining lions.”

Lions status in West Africa

Dark areas show the few remaining areas occupied by West African lions.

The survey received funding from National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI), as did an earlier study by Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The Duke study determined that lions had lost 75 percent of their habitat across the African savannah.

Learn more about Panthera’s lion conservation efforts in Project Leonardo.