Lions are iconic symbols of Africa yet they are in serious jeopardy of being completely erased from the environment. Panthera, a nonprofit conservation organization, recorded lion populations in 17 countries in West Africa over the course of six years. Their findings were shocking: There are only about 400 lions in the wild in West Africa, and only 250 of them are of breeding age. Their report was published in PLOS One.
There isn’t a noticeable physical difference between lion populations throughout Africa but there are genetic differences that set them apart. Losing these lions means a decline in biodiversity. Nine years ago, West African lions could be found in over twenty protected areas. Today, that number has dropped to four. Habitat destruction and human poverty in the region is primarily to blame, as it has manifested in several ways.
Because the countries in West Africa are home to some of the most impoverished people in the world, the governments simply do not have much to spend on animal conservation. What should be a safe haven for lions are not funded or well regulated. Some of these areas cannot even afford to pay anyone to patrol the area. Lions, and several other large mammal species, have been eradicated from these preserves because there simply isn’t anyone there to protect them.
The West Africans living in poverty are also impacting the lions, though much more directly. Poachers, desperate for money, are wiping out the lions’ food supply in order to provide bushmeat for local markets. The research team also noted lions being killed directly in “self defense,” though the farmers and their livestock that came under attack by the half-starved lions should never have been on the game preserve in the first place.
Humans have also destroyed much of the lion’s natural habitat in order to make room for large agricultural endeavors. Vast expanses of land are being dedicated to food crops and to cotton, which will give the people an item to trade and export. It is a hard situation all the way around, as the land that is giving those people a chance to be self-sufficient and survive has crushed lions in West Africa down to 1.1% of their historical range.
Panthera hopes that the findings from their report will get the conservation status for lions in West Africa updated to “critically endangered,” which is one step above extinction for wild populations.