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Western African lions - a tragedy or disgraceful neglect?

                                                                      Last chance to see?

We have long been warning the world public about the huge decline in lion populations in western Africa. The numbers alone should have been convincing enough for organizations like the IUCN and CITES to take definitive action in terms of placing these lions squarely in a category of critically endangered. A recent paper in PLoS One by Philipp Henschel and others enlarged on a previous study of western African lions and presented the very sobering conclusion that perhaps 406 lions remain (range: 273-605) and that 88% of those are in one transnational protected area (the W-Arli-Pendjari complex in Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso)   

Low numbers aside, genetic studies showed that these western African lions should be placed in their own separate subspecies, highly distinct from lions in eastern and southern Africa. As distinct, in fact, as the few remaining lions in India. 

Did the IUCN or CITES take action? No. 

We place misguided trust in such international organizations to pay due attention. We assume they are keeping an eye on the status of species and act appropriately. They failed and continue to fail very badly in this case. 

Let’s look at several items of interest here. In 2004 Kenya proposed placing lions on Appendix 1 of CITES. Kenya caved in to pressure and withdrew their proposal in favour of an international series of conferences organized by (you guessed it) the IUCN. These took place in 2005 (in Yaounde covering western and central Africa) and in 2006 (in Johannesburg covering southern and eastern Africa) .

Delegates with very little actual information came up with wildly inflated lion numbers. For example, they opined that the total number of lions in western and central Africa could be estimated at …. Ready for this? 2,955 to 4,005 lions. 

In 2012 LionAid challenged those numbers and we said a more reasonable estimate for that entire region was 645-795. We were called alarmists and extremists, seeking to gain funding by exaggerating numbers that could not be true. We in fact did careful research and said that lions in many areas were already extinct based on information from well-placed informants. 

And it indeed appears we were conservative. We estimated that the Niokolo-Guinee area in westernmost Africa contained 100-150 lions. The latest survey shows about 16. We underestimated the numbers in W-Arly-Penjary – we said about 200 lions, but the latest estimate is 365 lions. Not counted, mind you, but estimated. 

W-Arly-Penjari is a big “conservation” area, the biggest in western Africa spanning across several countries. However, despite the claims that lions are suffering mostly from loss of habitat and livestock conflict, it should be noted that Benin and Burkina Faso (administering that conservation area with Niger) allowed from 2002-2011 a total of 143 “adult” male lion trophies to be exported according to official CITES records. Being hunted to extinction in other words, and mostly by hunters from the European Union – France in particular where 80% of the trophies end up. 

French President Hollande pledged substantial funds for elephant conservation last month (17 million Euros). Time to look at what your citizens are doing to destroy lion populations?

So where do we go from here? Yes, the IUCN and CITES and the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations are all far too complacent. Or I would rather say negligent. But, to be fair, so are the western African nations like Benin, Burkina Faso and Cameroon that allowed, while well aware of the declining lion populations, trophy hunting to still continue. The best that can be said for those national authorities is that perhaps pro-hunting interests pulled the wool over their eyes by inflating lion numbers. But now, and right now, all western African nations should declare lions nationally endangered species and begin measures to stabilize populations. 

Supposedly Benin and Burkina Faso received funds from Germany and the European Union to assist with “conservation”. Time now, and despite lobbying from pro-hunting organizations, to take lions off the trophy hunting menu forever.

The authors of the article conclude:

“Considering the relative poverty of lion range states in West Africa, we call for the mobilization of substantial and urgent investment by the international community to assist these countries in improving management effectiveness of PAs containing lions. Lions persist in some of the largest and most intact protected landscapes in West Africa, where they co-occur with some of the last remaining populations of critically endangered mammals including Northwest African cheetahs, Western giant elands and African wild dogs. Further deterioration of those last wilderness areas in West Africa will likely cause the loss of genetically distinct populations of charismatic megafauna and further preclude already tenuous, potential future revenue streams from photographic tourism for West African nations. Without immediate action, we believe the opportunity to save both will be lost.”

The clock is ticking….

Picture: Lion in Pendjari National Park, Benin © Philipp Henschel

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Posted by Chris Macsween at 13:59

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