Philipp Henschel/Panthera/AP
This male lion cub is one of a few remaining in Nigeria’s Yankari National Park. New research published Monday shows sharp declines since 1990 in nearly all lion populations in West and Central Africa, and that both regions risk losing half their lions within the next two decades.

How lions might survive in the human dominated landscapes of Africa

A few success stories indicate that it's possible, but steep declines in populations in some African regions require immediate conservation action.

The lion population in some African regions has decreased by half since the early 1990s and is expected to decline by half again in the coming decades. And that’s an optimistic analysis, scientists say.

In a paper published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors report significant declines in the number of lions in west and central Africa, and lower declines in the east African countries where they have historically been abundant. In the national parks of Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, the animals are likely already extinct.

“These are symbols of Africa,” Dr. Philip Muruthi, in charge of species conservation for African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi, tells The Christian Science Monitor by Skype.

Healthy populations of large wildlife like lions, elephants, and rhinos (all threatened), “These are indicators of a good ecosystem” Dr. Muruthi says, “and if they are suffering, you don’t need to be told that those ecosystems are suffering in major ways.”

The study looked at data from 47 of the 67 areas in Africa where lions are still known to exist. This accounts for 8,221 of the estimated 20,000 lions left on the continent. Scientists from the United States, Britain, and Sweden estimate a 67 percent chance that the number of lions in west and central Africa will decline by half within 20 years. In the eastern part of Africa, home to the largest mammal migration in the world, lion populations are expected to fall by 37 percent.

“We are losing all the populations which are characteristic of the pristine view of lions,” Hans Bauer, a lion researcher at Oxford University who led the study, told The New York times. “Lions roaming free, hunting wildlife across the savanna.”

Roaming free and hunting for wildlife has become more challenging for lions, as a growing human population that relies on farming and ranching encroaches on land and leads to deadly interactions between the two species, mostly involving human retaliation against lions for attacks on livestock. Another challenge is a flourishing bushmeat trade that’s draining the supply of prey the large cats rely on.

But the situation is not completely hopeless for Africa. In the southern part of the continent, lion populations are stable and in some places growing. This is likely because of a lower density of people living in lion-populated areas, the establishment of wildlife preserves that protect the animals, and national policies for a hunting tourism industry that helps support local communities, reports the Times.

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, reports The Associated Press.

To many conservationists, hunting is a “necessary evil,” as one expert calls it in The Guardian, helping save wildlife populations by incentivizing communities to protect them in exchange for a robust tourism industry.

“We don’t like trophy hunting, but it slows the rapid decline of populations,” Guy Balme, director of the leopard program in Africa for US-based conservation group Panthera, told the Guardian.

Sport hunting brings in about $200 million a year to African countries through permits and taxes, the Guardian reports, money that in theory should be used for national parks and wildlife conservation.

As with elephants, some nations are attempting to revive their lost lion population by importing the big cats from other nations.

In June, Rwanda brought in seven lions – two males and five females – which were donated by South African game reserves in KwaZulu-Natal province in a conservation milestone after the big cat population dropped to zero following the country’s civil war, which killed more than 800,000 people.

For the first time in two decades, Rwanda has lions. 

The Rwandan government says it has conducted an extensive community awareness program to ensure co-existence and will also track the lion’s movements in order to protect them. “They will all be fitted with satellite collars, which will enable the Akagera National Park management team to monitor their movements and reduce the risk of the lions entering community areas,” Karitanyi  told Rwanda's New Times. “As an additional precautionary measure, the park fence has been predator-proofed.”

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