By Associated Press, adapted by Newsela staff
LAGOS, Nigeria — Lions are disappearing from the African continent, and that has researchers worried. The situation is particularly critical in West Africa.
Philipp Henschel, 40, studies lions for a group in New York called the Panthera Corporation, which is trying to save the world’s big cats. He sought out lions in West Africa for three years. He did not find a single one until a discovery in Nigeria in 2009, which surprised him.
“Nigeria has by far the biggest human population on the continent,” Henschel says. “The national parks are fairly small compared to others in West Africa that already have lost their lions.
“Everyone was excited, including rangers from Nigeria’s National Park Service. It was the first time they had seen one too,” Henschel says.
Desperate Search For Lions
West African lions are a national symbol of pride in Nigeria. They have short manes or none at all, and look more like Asian lions.
When Henschel discovered the lion, there were fewer than 30 in Nigeria’s Kainji Lake National Park, and only five in the country’s Yankari National Park.
Three years earlier, he says Nigerian conservationists had found lions in six protected areas. By 2009, lions remained in only two parks.
Since then, Henschel has looked for lions in all 21 West African protected areas. He found only nine lions and they were in just four parks. Two of the reserves are Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal, and the Pendjari and Arli National Parks, on the border between Benin and Burkina Faso.
Protection Is Key To Survival
Henschel published a research report last year that said lions no longer exist in 99 percent of their West African range. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added West African lions to its list of critically endangered animals.
Henschel says that the United States might also list the West African lion as endangered under its Endangered Species Act, a law that protects plants and wildlife. The listing would prevent trophy imports by American hunters.
Henschel has lived nearly half his life in another West African country called Gabon. Lions had not been seen there for 20 years, but in January, a researcher was studying chimpanzees in Gabon’s Bateke Plateau National Park, and surprisingly filmed a lion. Henschel thinks it crossed the border from Congo.
The lion, who researchers named Ali, is about 4 1/2 years old and the right age for breeding. Panthera, the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and Gabonese officials are working together to search for two female lions to import for Ali. They hope to renew the park’s lion population.
Big Cats Once Roamed The World
Lion populations are declining all over Africa. The situation is especially bad in the west and central parts of the continent. Research shows a decrease there in nearly all lion populations since 1990. Both regions could lose half their number of the big cats in the next 20 years.
Henschel contributed to that report, published by the National Academy of Sciences. The same report predicts a 37 percent chance that half the lion population of East Africa will also disappear.
The report also says lion populations in the south of Africa are increasing in four countries. They are Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where the big cats live on reserves.
Until 11,000 years ago, Henschel says lions roamed much of the world, where they could be found in Africa, Europe, Asia, and even North America. Now they are only in India and Africa.
Indian officials say only about 500 lions remain there. In Africa, the IUCN says that fewer than 20,000 lions are left in the wild.
In West Africa, Henschel’s research shows only 400 lions. The big cats there are possibly the most endangered lions on the planet.
Humans, Global Warming Spell Trouble
There are several reasons for the decline, all caused by humans. More farmers are moving onto land where lions have traditionally roamed, and poachers are hunting wild animals in the bush, particularly antelope, which are the sole food source for lions.
Global warming is also limiting grazing land. As the climate changes, less land is available to farm. Less available land causes conflict between roaming animal herders and farmers, and leaves even less space for lions. As a result, lions stray from protected areas to kill cattle. Then, Henschel says herders will often poison a cow carcass to kill the lion that felled it.
Race For Survival
Trophy hunting is yet another threat to the African lions. Earlier this year, a famous lion named Cecil was killed by an American trophy hunter in the southern African country of Zimbabwe.
Conservationists say he was lured out of a protected area in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. People around the world were outraged, and the attention brought increased interest in lion conservation.
In February, Panthera and a British group called WildCRU will host a summit in Cecil’s name. The gathering in Oxford, England, plans to draw attention to the threat to lions. Henschel hopes to use Cecil’s death to raise funds to make sure lions do not disappear completely in Africa.
Panthera President Luke Hunter says, “We have to confront that reality. Lions and people both evolved in Africa and co-existed for millennia, but today, one is losing the race for survival.”