250. That’s the estimated number of adult lions remaining in the entire West African region, new research warns. Although these top predators once roamed all across West Africa, ranging continuously from Senegal to Nigeria, their populations have suffered catastrophic declines in recent decades. Without urgent action to protect them, West Africa's last lion survivors could soon disappear.

West African Lion Endangered 3
A new Panthera study estimates that only around 250 adult lions survive in West Africa.

The grim statistics are part of a new study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. Based on an extensive survey initiated by global wild cat conservation organization Panthera, the study concludes that West African lions now survive in only five countries – Senegal, Nigeria and a single population on the shared borders of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso (and only one of these remaining populations contains more than 50 lions). To safeguard the lions’ future, the poverty-stricken nations will require a massive commitment of resources from the international community to fund conservation efforts.

We spoke to Panthera’s Lion Program Survey Coordinator and study co-author Dr Philipp Henschel about the six-year survey and the steps that are now urgently needed to protect the region’s remaining big cats.

Q: According to your study, lions occupy only 1.1% of their former range in West Africa. That’s a staggering drop! What’s happened to the other 98.9%?

A: The collapse of lion range in West Africa is poorly documented, but appears to be linked to large-scale habitat loss outside protected areas through conversion to agriculture. Only about 6% of former lion range in West Africa still consists of suitable lion habitat, and the majority of those suitable areas are situated inside formally protected areas. Despite the latter, weak protected area management and concomitant poaching of lions and their prey has wiped out lions in all but four West African protected areas.

West African Lion Survey Map (1)

Q: Are there any physical differences between the West African lions and their southern/eastern counterparts? 

A: Lions in West Africa are lighter in build compared to those in east and southern Africa, giving them a more long-legged appearance. Males generally possess much sparser manes than males in southern/eastern Africa, which may be an adaption to reduce heat stress. West African lions look fairly similar to the remaining Asiatic lions in Gir Forest, in India, to which they are closely related.

West African Lion Endangered 2
Lions in West Africa have a slighter build than their cousins farther south, and males have less prominent manes.

Q: Why is recognizing West African lions as genetically different from other populations so important for conservation efforts? And what does genetically different actually mean when we talk about lion populations?

A: It has to be widely recognized that if we lose the West African lion, we lose haloptypes, that is, combinations of DNA sequences, which are not found in any other lion populations. We do not yet know what traits these unique genetic sequences express, but they may hold adaptions to the extremely hot and dry Sahelian climate West African lions adapted to, which could be crucial for the survival of the entire species under current climate change scenarios.

Q: Your study suggests that better protection for West Africa's lions could have a beneficial knock-on effect for other species, too. Why?

A: Large carnivores, such as lions, naturally occur at low densities, and depend on sizeable populations of potential prey species, such as large ungulates. To protect a viable population of lions therefore requires very large areas (>4,000 km2 for West Africa, based on our findings), which have to be rigorously protected to prevent poaching of all the prey species lions depend on. Protecting such large areas from the onslaught of poachers naturally benefits a whole suite of species, including other large carnivores, such as cheetahs and wild dogs, elephants, and rare primates and ungulates.

Q: Are there any plans for captive-breeding programmes? 

A: There are currently no pure-bred West African lions in captivity, and the relict wild populations should certainly not be weakened by removing individuals for captive breeding programs. Furthermore, prior research on lions has clearly demonstrated the unsuitability of captive-bred lions for release into the wild. All our efforts should therefore focus on protecting the last remaining wild popluations.

Q: Are West African lions threatened by poaching for traditional Asian medicine trade like the eastern and southern African lions?

A: We have little concrete evidence for the use of West African lion body parts for traditional Asian medicine trade. However, during a recent lion survey in Benin’s W National Park we were informed by park rangers about multiple cases of lions being specifically targeted by poachers. Arrested poachers not only carried lion skins, which can fetch high prizes in local fetish markets, but also lion bones, which, according to the rangers, are traditionally not used by local people. The presence of a large Asian road construction firm in a nearby town, called Banikoara, may hint to the origin of the worrisome new demand in lion bone.

Q: As part of the study, you conducted extensive field surveys in the largest protected areas inhabited by lions in West Africa. What sort of difficulties or dangers did you encounter?

A: Some surveys were very demanding, physically and emotionally. Due to the complete lack of roads in some protected areas, we had to conduct all survey work on foot in those areas. This meant hiking for weeks, through tough terrain, sometimes under extreme heat (>95 ºF even at night), constantly searching for lion spoor, as well as the scarce sources of drinkable surface water that would keep us going. Encounters with aggressive poachers, and, in some countries, rebel groups, were frequent, and it was devastating to realize that despite all this physical effort, despite weeks spent searching for spoor, no signs of lions could be found in so many areas. 

West African Lion Survey Team
The survey involved long treks through sometimes treacherous terrain, often in extreme heat.

Q:  For an outsider, it can be difficult to imagine just how challenging it is to maintain protected areas with the meagre resources available to many West African countries. What were your impressions of the situation "on the ground"?

A: Some of the parks we surveyed were true paper parks, meaning that they exist on a map, but are not actively protected on the ground. Individual protected areas we surveyed on foot in Nigeria or Ivory Coast, for example, were completely overrun by poachers and nomadic pastoralists with their cattle herds. Most of the rangers that accompanied us on such surveys had actually never set foot in “their” parks, as park authorities were lacking operating budgets, equipment and well-trained rangers to organize rigorous anti-poaching patrols.

West African Lion Survey
Many of the parks covered by the surgery turned out to be parks in name only, with no resources in place to actively protect them.

Q:  In an ideal world, what needs to happen right now in order to ensure the lions’ future survival?

A: Now that this massive survey effort has been concluded, we finally know where lions remain and where we need to invest our efforts to save them. This was a vital first step, but the real work of saving them is only just beginning. Even the protected areas that retain lions are understaffed and underequipped, and we need to assist lion range countries, financially and technically, to improve the protection of the areas containing lions.

Q: It’s clear that substantial investment by large international bodies is desperately needed in order to safeguard and grow the remaining lion populations in the region. But is there anything concerned individuals can do to make a tangible difference?

A: Most people associate lions with the iconic game parks of eastern and southern Africa, where visiting tourists may gain the impression that lions are fairly abundant and are probably doing fine on the whole. Only few people will have known that lions actually occur in West Africa, and even fewer will be aware how close they are to extinction. The survival of the lion in West Africa will depend on all of us, as the lion range states in West Africa are among the poorest nations on earth, and will not be able to save their lions all alone. Every concerned individual can help to raise awareness about the plight of the lion in West Africa, which is needed to convince the international conservation community and large funding bodies to invest in their conservation. Tell your friends, family and colleagues about Panthera’s work to save the lion and encourage them to visit and donate.