Majestic lions face devastating decline in Africa

Researchers find lion populations in parts of Africa were halved in the past two decades. That trend will only continue, they predict.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
A lion wears a tracking collar as it walks inside Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park in Hwange, October 15. The park was home to country's most famous lion, Cecil, killed by US Dentist Walter Palmer in July.

Lions may not be kings of Africa’s wild for much longer. 

Populations are declining across much of the continent, with dismal predictions for the future, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Most African lion populations have been cut in half over the past two decades and that is expected to continue.

The lion populations in West and Central Africa may be halved again in the next 20 years. And East Africa, lions’ long-time kingdom, will not be left untouched either.

Previously, scientists thought East Africa was a shining example of wild lion populations. 

“It turns out that was a flawed assumption,” a study author and president of the conservation organization Panthera Luke Hunter told Scientific American. “There are excellent lion populations that are doing well in East Africa, but it turns out that they’re the exception, not the rule.”

Of 47 lion populations studied across Africa, the researchers found that almost all were in sharp decline. They calculated a 67 percent chance that lion populations in West and Central Africa will be cut in half again in the next 20 years. In Eastern Africa, that chance is 37 percent.

Some may even disappear entirely, according to Dr. Hunter. “The human pressure is too great,” he said.

Only four southern African countries are seeing increases of lions: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. But unlike wild populations in other regions, these lions are living on fenced conservation lands.

“If resources for wild lands cannot keep pace with mounting levels of threat, the flagship species of the African continent may cease to exist in many countries,” lead author Hans Bauer of WildCRU said in a news release.

Lions lived in almost all parts of the world up until about 11,000 years ago, according to Philipp Henschel, lion survey coordinator for Panthera and an author of the study.

Now, lions are only spotted in Africa and India. And lions in India number just about 500. 

In Africa, the wild population of lions may not even reach 20,000.  

So what threatens these big cats?

Increased hunting of wild game meat has left little for the lions to prey on. 

As a result, their next meal may conflict directly with humans’ as the lions turn to livestock. Farmers feel threatened and retaliate by killing the hungry cats, said Hunter.

Conservation lands like those in southern Africa could offer a solution, but some regions may not even have the habitat to create such reserves. It might already be gone.

“The sad thing is there are really very few opportunities to replicate that elsewhere in Africa,” Hunter said.

“We’ve got a huge amount of work ahead of us,” he said. “It’s not just about lions. It’s about protecting these massive, iconic African landscapes. If we get it right, lions respond very quickly and African woodland savannahs can recover very quickly. They’re incredibly resilient.”

But even conservation may not be sufficient. Paul Funston, senior director of Panthera's Lion Program, said in the release, "If we don't address these declines urgently, and at a massive scale, the intensively managed populations in southern Africa will be a poor substitute for the freely roaming lion populations in the iconic savannahs of East Africa. In our view, that’s not an option."

Lions are currently listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' red list. That list focuses on global trends, but the authors of this study recommend that lion's status be regional. As such, they suggest that lions be considered endangered in Central and East Africa.

"We have to confront that reality," Hunter told the Associated Press. "Lions and people both evolved in Africa and co-existed for millennia, but today, one is losing the race for survival."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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