- 14:37 01 November 2001 by Joanna Marchant
Lions may soon become extinct in large parts of Africa. According to a commission set up under the auspices of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), there is not a single population of lions in West or Central Africa that is large enough to be viable.
Although there are thousands of lions in East Africa, little is known about the numbers in countries such as Cameroon, Mali and Senegal.
In June, Hans Bauer of Leiden University in the Netherlands helped to organise a meeting of IUCN members working with lions in Cameroon to pool knowledge about how many there are. A report of the meeting will be published on the African Lion Working Group¹s website in November.
There have been virtually no long-term studies of lions in the region. “The figures are estimates based on being in the field from time to time,” says Bauer.
For a population of lions to have enough genetic diversity to sustain itself without inbreeding, biologists estimate that it must contain around 100 breeding pairs, which means between 500 and 1000 animals in total.
But none of the populations in the region has anywhere near this number of animals. The two largest populations, in the Benoue area of Cameroon and on the Senegal-Mali-Guinea border, have around 200 lions each. There are also about a dozen smaller populations, with around 50 lions each.
“It’s a serious situation,” says Bauer. “There’s not one population that we can be sure will continue to be there.”
And Will Travers of the Born Free Foundation in London says, “It might seem like there are a lot of lions, but they have become a completely fragmented population.”
Big game hunters
Part of the problem is that lions are not generally thought of as being at risk. “Nothing is being done in West and central Africa,” says Bauer. “There is no research and no specific conservation.” A spokeswoman for the WWF says the conservation organisation does not work with lions “because they are not endangered”.
One major reason for the lions’ decline is that as agriculture spreads, they are squeezed into small and isolated tracts of land. Lions need huge areas to hunt – between 20 and 200 square kilometres for a single male – so even a national park of several hundred square kilometres cannot support a large population, while lions that stray over the borders come up against local people and their livestock.
But Travers says it’s vital not to give up hope. “We shouldn’t allow this depressing news to be a signal that it’s all over for lions in these countries,” he says. “The lion is the symbol of Africa. If these countries can no longer say ‘We’ve got lions’, that will be a significant disincentive for wildlife tourists.”
Bauer says that trouble for the lions could be a warning that the ecosystem as a whole is under threat. “The lion is a keystone species,” he says. “It’s a signal – the fact that lions are threatened now could mean that other species might be threatened in 20 to 30 years time.”