Why Africa's lions are rapidly disappearing

Africa's lion population has dwindled to 32,000, a nearly 70 percent decline in the past 50 years, according to a new survey by Duke University.

(AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
A lion cub sleeps at a nature reserve near Johannesburg, South Africa. A new study shows that Africa's lion population has shrunk to 32,000.

The lions that roam Africa's savannahs have lost as much as 75 percent of their habitat in the last 50 years as humans overtake their land and the lion population dwindles, said a study released Tuesday.

Researchers at Duke University, including prominent conservationist Stuart Pimm, warn that the number of lions across the continent have dropped to as few as 32,000, with populations in West Africa under incredible pressure.

"Lion numbers have declined precipitously in the last century," the study, published Tuesday by the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, reads. "Given that many now live in small, isolated populations, this trend will continue. The situation in West Africa is particularly dire, with no large population remaining and lions now absent from many of the region's national parks."

Fifty years ago, nearly 100,000 lions roamed across the African continent. In recent years, however, an ever-growing human population has come into the savannah lands to settle and develop. That has both cut down the amount of land lions have to roam, as well as fragmented it, researchers said.

“The word savannah conjures up visions of vast open plains teeming with wildlife.  But the reality is that massive land-use change and deforestation, driven by rapid human population growth, has fragmented or degraded much of the original savannah.  Only 25 percent remains of an ecosystem that once was a third larger than the continental United States,” said  Pimm in a statement released by Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers determined the amount of land now available for lions that remains wild and minimally impacted by human growth. Those lands are rapidly diminishing, and more territory will likely be lost in the next 40 years, the report said.

Of 67 isolated locations in Africa where human populations are low enough to allow lions to survive, only 10 were deemed "strongholds" where lions have an excellent chance of survival.

Five countries in Africa have likely lost their lions since a 2002 study was run, the report said. Only nine countries contain at least 1,000 lions, while Tanzania alone has more than 40 percent of the continent's lions, it said.

"An obvious caveat is that areas for which we detect little conversion of savannahs to croplands may still suffer human impacts that make them unsuitable for lions," the report said. "Over-hunting for trophies, poaching — of lions and of their prey species — and conflict with pastoralists may not have any visual signal to satellites. Even where there are low human population densities and areas designated as national parks, there (may) not be lions within them."

The report calls for more mapping and studying to be done to ensure the lions' protection.

The lion research was funded by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, a long-term effort to halt the decline of big cats in the wild through assessment efforts, on-the-ground conservation projects, education and a global public-awareness campaign. 

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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