West African lions on brink of extinction due to farming and hunting

Just 400 remain in face of encroaching farmland and hunting, study finds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 4:37am

West Africa's lions, which once prowled across the region in their tens of thousands, are close to extinction as farmland eats up their ancient habitats and human hunters kill the animals they feed on, a study has shown.

Just about 400 of the animals are thought to have survived across 17 countries, according to the paper published in scientific journal PLOS ONE.

"These lions are standing on a cliff looking at the chasm of extinction," Luke Hunter, one of the paper's authors and president of wild cat conservation group Panthera, said. "It would be very easy for small, isolated populations to be wiped out over the next five to 10 years."

Fewer than 250 of the survivors are mature cats, capable of breeding. But even that ability to produce cubs is limited by the fact they are spread across wide areas in groups that often do not have enough lionesses to sustain a population.

The study says there has been no comprehensive study of the size of past populations, though Hunter said there would at one stage have been "many tens of thousands" of lions.

The study says they are now only present in 1.1 per cent of their original habitat and recommends they be classified as "critically endangered".

Conservation efforts in a region known for its poverty and political instability have been weak compared to other parts of Africa, and the population density is only about one-fifteenth that of lions in East Africa.

One of the main reasons for the decline is the conversion of habitat into farmland. Others include sharp falls in the numbers of antelope, buffalo and other prey, and villagers killing lions in revenge for the loss of livestock.

The West African lion, a relatively slender animal with a thin mane, is genetically distinct from the rest of the African species.