Lions, pride of Africa, vanishing in West Africa

Lions, that symbol of Africa’s wild beauty, power and freedom, no longer roam in Mali.

Or in Ivory Coast or Ghana or war-shattered eastern Congo. Or most of the rest of West Africa.

Three years of searching and no sight of a lion for Philipp Henschel, lion survey coordinator for the New York-based Panthera conservation group.

Then he saw it, his first lion in West Africa. And in of all places, Nigeria.

“It came as a big surprise because Nigeria has by far the biggest human population on the continent, and the national parks are fairly small compared to others in West Africa that already have lost their lions,” Henschel told The Associated Press.

“Everyone was excited, including rangers from Nigeria’s National Park Service, it was the first time they had seen one too.”

That was in 2009. The count was depressing: 25 to 30 lions left in Kainji Lake National Park in west-central Nigeria and only about five in the east-central Yankari National Park.

Three years earlier, Nigerian conservationists had reported lions present in six protected areas, but they had apparently disappeared in four of them, Henschel said.

Henschel has gone on to survey all 21 protected areas believed to harbor lions in West Africa. He has seen only nine lions in four reserves, including Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park and the trans-frontier Pendjari and Arli National Parks of Benin and Burkina Faso.

His research, published last year, reported that lions no longer exist in 99 per cent of their historic range in West Africa, a finding that prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to put the lions of West Africa on its Red List as critically endangered.

The situation is dire in much of Africa. New research published today 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.

East Africa stands a 37 per cent chance of halving its lion population over the same period, according to the survey published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences and written by researchers including Henschel.

Lion populations are increasing in only four southern African nations: Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where most lions are in fenced reserves, the survey found.

With the international spotlight on lion conservation intensified by outrage over the killing this year of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe by an American hunter, Henschel’s Panthera group hopes to attract funding from conservation agencies and Nigerian philanthropists to make sure lions do not disappear here.