A new study says the number of lions in sub-Saharan Africa is declining at an alarming rate, due in part to human encroachment in lions’ natural habitats.
The mighty lion may be Africa’s top predator, but it appears to be no match against human encroachment into savannah lands, the natural habitat of the so-called king of the jungle.
Researchers from Duke University released a study
this week that said lion populations in Africa have decreased by almost two-thirds over the last 50 years, predicting that as few as 32,000 lions may be left on the continent.
Using satellite imaging technology, researchers said they found strong evidence of correlation between the population decline and a dramatic 75 percent loss of habitable savannah land during approximately the same time period.
Stuart Pimm is a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University and one of the lead authors of the paper. He said much of this loss has gone unnoticed for decades.
“Savannah Africa is an area about half as large as the continental United States, so it is a very, very large piece of land. The impression that many people have comes from watching movies where you see lions chasing zebras across plains, and you get the impression it is in good shape. But in fact, what we found was that savannah Africa is in worse shape than the world’s rainforests," Pimm said. "About 25 percent of savannah Africa remains.”
Researchers said as many as 6,000 of the remaining lions currently face a high risk of extinction.
The situation is particularly dire in West Africa, where it is estimated that the lion population dropped from approximately 1,200 lions in 2002 down to between just 480 and 525 lions in 2012.
And with human populations in Africa expected to double by the year 2050, conservationists say the situation is likely to get worse.
Pimm said that as Africa becomes increasingly urbanized and more savannah is converted to farm land, lions risk being pushed out of even more of their habitats. Despite the decrease, Pimm said it is not too late. The number of lions across the continent, he said, has not yet fallen to a critical level. “I think one of the important things to stress is that this isn’t all gloom and doom. That we’re using this information to very actively look at strategies for how we can protect lions and help people get a benefit from having wildlife live near them,” he added.
Pimm said the next step is to find ways of allowing lions and people to coexist. While national parks and game reserves go a long way in protecting wildlife, he said most are not big enough to support large lion populations, and many, particularly in East Africa, are not fenced in.
In both cases, the lions end up migrating into areas inhabited by humans and eating their livestock. People retaliate against the lions, Pimm said, and the populations begin to dwindle. “So in those areas, we need to work with people to make sure when lions kill their livestock they don’t retaliate," he explained. "And the way to do that is to make sure the lions don’t kill the livestock in the first place. And we are working with the people there to help them develop simple technologies that will protect livestock better.”
Pimm said that lions and other wildlife are a valuable resource. They can drive tourism and other economic activity in the countries that choose to protect and maintain their wildlife.