Lion populations are declining sharply but can be saved with these simple measures

Lion populations are declining sharply but can be saved with these simple measures

Worrisome new research suggests that the iconic African lion is quickly disappearing from the wild. Nearly two thirds of the current lion population is facing a decline. Lions in West Africa are especially at risk.

Worrisome new research suggests that the iconic African lion is quickly disappearing from the wild. Nearly two thirds of the current lion population is facing a decline. Lions in West Africa are especially at risk.

Since 1992, the overall number of lions in the wild has decreased thanks to competition for territory with local herders as well as the drop in the populations of the lions’ prey, according to the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a journal. If drastic measures aren’t taken to save the lions, the West African population could halve within 20 years.

The study examined 47 different lion prides from across Africa, totaling about 8,200 lions in all. The researchers reviewed records of the pride size going all the way back to 1990.

The results show that West and Central African lions have steeply declined and at the current rate will decrease by half within two decades. East African lions are doing slightly better, perhaps thanks to the conservation efforts of the Masai Mara, but can still expect to see a population drop by one third if action is not taken.

“A lot of the African bush is now silent of the lion’s roar,” said study co-author Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, an organization dedicated to the conservation of big cats. “We’re losing that characteristic emblem of African wilderness.”

Fortunately, there is some good news. The number of lions in Southern Africa has remained steady, a few prides are even increasing in size. This is largly due to fenced in reservations and the thriving tourism economy of countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

There are two major threats facing the lions, both of which can be remedied if decisive action is taken by local authorities.

The first is threat is the human pastoralists that raise herds of animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Not only is this putting a strain on available resources, it also leads to a lions being killed by herders trying to protect their animals.

“If [the lions] are killing livestock, people really move heaven and earth to get rid of them; they just hunt them down,” said Hunter.

The second threat is the pressure placed on prey species by human hunters. Poachers will hunt or trap species ranching from zebras to gazelle to wildebeest to sell as bush meat in commercial markets. The lions are no match for such advanced hunters and are struggling find enough food.

Again there is some good news. According to the study, few lions are being poached. Unlike elephants or tigers, lions are not as highly prized.

The researchers conclude that lions are faring better in the South, and somewhat in the East, because the economies of these countries rely more heavily on tourism as opposed to agriculture. There is a great incentive for their governments to pour money into reservations and to strictly enforce anti-poaching laws- after all, more animals mean more foreigners coming to take pictures. And more than anything, visitors want to see the King of the Jungle, the lion.

West African countries are small and densely populated. They are some of the poorest countries in the world and do not have well-developed tourism industries. What little tourism they had has crumbled in the wake of the Ebola crisis.

According to Luke Hunter, however, there are still things these countries can do to protect their lions. First and foremost, teach pastoralists “methods to protect their herds, such as building better fences or moving their livestock into sturdy corrals at night”.

“Neither of these is mysterious or complicated, but implementing them at large scales requires a major commitment of people, expertise and funding,” said Hunter.

Hunter also advises devoting greater attention to patrolling wildlife areas and removing traps and snares. This will not only benefit the lions but many other species as well.

Finally, the study calls on international aid groups to increase funding for conservation efforts.

“This is not just about less lions, it is about lions no longer playing a keystone role in functioning ecosystems”, said lead author Hans Bauer of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford.

Current estimates say that there are 20,000 lions left in the wild. This is down from 200,000 lions a hundred years ago.

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