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article imageThe 'King of Beasts' threatened by extinction in Western Africa

By Karen Graham     Jan 9, 2014 in Environment
Plagued by underfunding, little governmental support, poaching and indiscriminate killing by cattle herders, many of the countries in Western Africa have little control or incentive to save the few remaining western African lions left in the wild.
Six years ago, the big cat conservation organization, Panthera, began an important surveythat would involve trekking through 17 African nations, in search of the elusive West African lion, historically considered a sub-species of Panthera leo senegalensis.
While the sub-species designation is rarely used today, the West African lion is more genetically similar to the now extinct Barbary lion of northern Africa and the Asiatic lion of India. They are smaller and genetically different than their eastern and southern relatives. The African lion at one time was found all across Western Africa, from Senegal to Nigeria.
Lion range conservation map  2013.
Lion range conservation map, 2013.
The lion program research coordinator, Philipp Henschel who led the six-year study, from October 2006 through May 2012, described the disheartening results the group came to accept, and that was the fate of the West African lion was far worse than the team had been led to believe. Before 2005, researchers believed the lions lived in 21 different protected areas.
The team actually found there were only four areas the West African lion inhabits. Even more disheartening is the fact that they found only 400 lions left in the wild, a mere 250 of which are mature adults. More disturbing is the fact that the decline in the lion population is not unexpected, considering the region itself. Between 1970 and 2005, the populations of other large animals in the region had declined at least 85 percent., this being mostly due to the huge demand for bushmeat, the lion's natural prey.
Further study of the region reveals the 11 countries making up West Africa are among the continent's poorest nations, and additionally, includes the world's six most-under-developed countries. There is no money for conservation, and in supposed sanctuaries, there was little or no money for management, security patrols or enforcement of regulations. The study revealed the conservation areas were nothing more than "paper-parks," in other words, existing only on a piece of paper.
A small group of young male lions have retired up into a tree to escape from vast numbers of flies c...
A small group of young male lions have retired up into a tree to escape from vast numbers of flies closer to the ground.
Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
The study was a grueling task for the research team, often involving in-person interviews with groups of native herdsmen and with researchers doing studies on other animals. Because of a lack of roads, the research also involved trekking many miles, looking for signs of lion activity. Henschel said, “Due to the complete lack of roads in some protected areas, we had to conduct all survey work on foot in those areas, hiking up to 600 kilometers through rough terrain during individual surveys. Encounters with aggressive poachers, and, in some countries, rebel groups, were frequent.”
The researchers also interviewed members of the Fulani ethnic group. They are herdsmen and are the largest migratory group in Africa, extending all across West Africa. They herd thousands of cattle, and often lay out poison for lions who are apt to prey on any straying cattle. The team often found the Fulani herders inside conservation areas, reserved for lions and other protected species. “It was devastating to realize that despite all this physical effort, despite weeks spent searching for spoor, no lion sign could be found in so many areas,” Henschel says.
Henschel says that the lack of scientific interest by international research institutions and conservation organizations is appalling. They come to Africa, but usually congregate in the "iconic game parks" of eastern and southern Africa, and the lions of western Africa have been left to face a silent demise. The four areas where the West African lion exists today are located in pockets, small isolated areas in Senegal, Nigeria and the border areas between Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Hunger and malnutrition in Burkino faso is an everyday worry in one on four areas where the West Afr...
Hunger and malnutrition in Burkino faso is an everyday worry in one on four areas where the West African lion still exists.
European Commission DG ECHO
With the population of the lions being reduced to such small areas, the research team is also quite concerned about reduced genetic variation due to the adults having a limited choice of mates outside the family. This will reduce the genetic fitness of any sired offspring. This genetic problem and the harsh decline in the total population of the West African lion has caused Henschel to ask that this lion be listed as a critically endangered sub-species.
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