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The sun continues to set over western African lions.

Can western African lions be saved? We might just be too late. Has too much water passed under the bridge to reverse the decline of western African lions? It would seem ever more so. But let’s turn the clock back some years and see from past perspective what happened to form this rather gloomy current outlook.

First, in 2002, there were two independent efforts to estimate pan-African lion numbers (Bauer H. & van der Merwe S. 2004: Inventory of free-ranging lions Panthera leo in Africa. Oryx 38, 26-31; and Chardonnet P. 2002: Conservation of the African Lion: Contribution to a Status Survey. International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife, Paris, France). Both “surveys” relied on “estimates” from “informed sources” to a very large extent rather than taking actual counts, and therefore the survey results were dissimilar. Nevertheless, concern was expressed over the low numbers the authors reported, and the results prompted Kenya to propose at the 2004 CITES meeting to elevate lions to Appendix 1 – effectively ceasing all commercial trade. Encountering opposition from other range states (and effective lobbying against the move by SCI), Kenya withdrew the proposition in favour of a call for regional meetings to decide conservation measures. These were duly undertaken  and conference reports published (IUCN 2006a: Conservation strategy for the lion in Eastern and Southern Africa. IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK; and IUCN 2006b: Conservation strategy for the lion in West and Central Africa. IUCN SSC Cat Specialist Group, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK).

 Emerging data

 For western and central Africa, the report defined areas (based on the “surveys”) where lions might yet occur, and called for actual surveys of these areas to ascertain what was present on the ground vs being guessed at. This resulted in Philipp Henschel and coworkers to spend considerable time and effort in five western and central African countries to document what was actually present in the so-called Lion Conservation Units (LCUs). Henschel's report in 2010 paints a rather bleak picture.

He reports the following:

“The presented survey efforts covered 12 of the 16 LCUs outlined for West Africa, and three of the 11 LCUs outlined for Central Africa. Lions were confirmed in only two of the 12 LCUs surveyed in West Africa, and in none of the three LCUs surveyed in Central Africa. Even more alarmingly, our survey results raise the possibility that no resident lion populations persist in Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. If true, this means there are vast gaps in the lion range in West and Central Africa far beyond those indicated in 2006. It is unclear whether our results indicate a true deterioration in lion status since 2006 or whether the LCUs in question were delimited based on outdated or inaccurate information. Our survey results suggest a combination of both.”

Henschel is basically saying, in a diplomatic way, that either the lion numbers presented in the Central and Western Africa IUCN report was based on wishful thinking, or that lions were extirpated in such areas between the time the IUCN numbers were published and his surveys. My guess – the numbers were based on wishful thinking, and that bodes badly for the Eastern and Southern African IUCN report as well.

So where were the two LCU’s of the twelve surveyed where lions were actually found? Henschel has this to say: “Lions in Nigeria persist in two disjunct populations, located in the relatively well-protected core areas of Kainji Lake NP (Western section) and Yankari GR. Population size of both is small, with respective estimates of 24 and 15 lions, resulting in a total population of < 50 lions for Nigeria.” In other words, Nigeria will soon join the list of lionless states in West Africa, and the Henschel lion numbers are considerably fewer than the 2006 IUCN report estimated for Nigeria (175) and the 85-200 lions estimated by the two surveys of Chardonnet and Bauer/Van der Merwe.

 Any future?

 So what to do? Henschel admits that his survey targeted a relatively limited area in West Africa, and did not examine the areas identified as other lion “strongholds” in nations like Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Benin (the 4 missing LCU’s from the survey). He will hopefully in the future identify funding to survey those areas to establish what additional results will reveal. Meanwhile, the IUCN has designated western African lions as “regionally endangered”, and surely with their greatly enhanced interest they will take action?

Another player has been the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Hans Bauer, the joint author of one the two original surveys, was associated with Leiden as a PhD student. Now Hans de Iongh seems to be running the western African lion interests at the University, which has resulted in several funded field projects. They are much needed, and LionAid will be contacting the University for their view on the situation on the ground.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a revived interest among at least some western African nations in terms of protecting what is left, and resurrecting what has been lost. Neither will be easy to accomplish without considerable effort – Henschel reports that at some of the supposed LCUs he found poachers and pastoralists in well-established camps. In Nigeria the pastoralists had paid a fee to the wildlife department to be able to graze their cattle in these “officially protected” areas!

Please stay tuned to these reports, and to make our continued efforts possible, donate generously to LionAid


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Posted by Pieter Kat at 12:24

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