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75% of African lion habitat gone, study says

Dec. 4, 2012
Courtesy of Panthera
and World Science staff

Li­ons have lost three-quarters of their orig­i­nal nat­u­ral hab­i­tat in Af­ri­ca as peo­ple have tak­en it over for their own pur­poses, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

The re­port reaches a som­ber con­clu­sion: West­ern Af­ri­ca, in par­tic­u­lar, must be giv­en mon­ey to pro­tect li­ons. Billed as the fullest as­sess­ment to date on the state of Af­ri­can sa­van­nah, or grass­land, hab­i­tat, the re­port says the hab­i­tat loss has dev­as­tat­ed li­on popula­t­ions.

A li­on in West Af­ri­ca. (Cred­it: Phi­lipp Hen­schel/­Pan­the)


“From an orig­i­nal ar­ea a third larg­er than the con­ti­nen­tal Un­ited States, only 25 per­cent re­mains,” said Stu­art Pimm of Duke Uni­vers­ity in Dur­ham, N.C., co-author of the re­port, which ap­pears on­line this week in the jour­nal Bio­divers­ity and Con­serva­t­ion. Primm and oth­er sci­en­tists co­or­di­nated by the uni­vers­ity co-wrote the re­port with Phi­lipp Hen­schel, co­or­di­na­tor of the New York-based Pan­ther­a's Li­on Pro­gram Sur­vey.

The group used Google Earth's high-resolution sat­el­lite im­age­ry to ex­am­ined sa­van­nah across Af­ri­ca, which com­prises the ma­jor­ity of the li­on's cur­rent range. They al­so an­a­lyzed hu­man popula­t­ion dens­ity da­ta to iden­ti­fy ar­e­as of suit­a­ble hab­i­tat. They iden­ti­fied just 67 iso­lat­ed re­gions continent-wide where sig­nif­i­cant li­on popula­t­ions may per­sist. Of these, only 15 were es­ti­mat­ed to main­tain at least 500 li­ons.

The study al­so found that in West Af­ri­ca, where the spe­cies is clas­si­fied as Re­gion­ally En­dan­gered on the Red List of Threat­ened Spe­cies, few­er than 500 li­ons re­main, scat­tered across eight iso­lat­ed re­gions.

“Li­ons have been hit hard­est in West Af­ri­ca, where lo­cal go­vernments of­ten lack di­rect in­cen­tives to pro­tect them,” Hen­schel said. “While li­ons gen­er­ate billi­ons of tour­ist dol­lars across East­ern and South­ern Af­ri­ca, spur­ring go­vernments to in­vest in their pro­tection, wildlife-based tour­ism is only slowly de­vel­op­ing in West Af­ri­ca. Cur­rently li­ons still have lit­tle eco­nom­ic val­ue in the re­gion, and West Af­ri­can go­vernments will re­quire sig­nif­i­cant for­eign as­sis­tance in sta­bi­liz­ing re­maining popula­t­ions un­til sus­tain­a­ble lo­cal con­serva­t­ion ef­forts can be de­vel­ope­d.”

Pan­thera col­la­bo­rates in the Washington-based Na­t­ional Ge­o­graph­ic So­ci­ety's Big Cats In­i­ti­a­tive, which is meant to ad­dress the most se­ri­ous threats fac­ing big cats in the wild and help chan­nel fi­nan­cial sup­port to well-de­signed con­serva­t­ion pro­grams.


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Lions have lost three-quarters of their original natural habitat in Africa as people have taken it over for their own purposes, according to a new study. The report reaches an urgent conclusion: Western Africa, in particular, must be given money necessary to conserve lions. Billed as the fullest assessment to date on the state of African savannah, or grassland, habitat, the report said the habitat loss has devastated lion populations. “From an original area a third larger than the continental United States, only 25% remains,“ said Stuart Pimm of Duke University in Durham, N.C., co-author of the report, which appears online this week in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation. Primm and other scientists coordinated by the university co-wrote the report with Philipp Henschel, coordinator of the New York-based Panthera's Lion Program Survey. The group used Google Earth's high-resolution satellite imagery to examined savannah across Africa, which comprises the majority of the lion's current range. They also analyzed human population density data to identify areas of suitable habitat. They identified just 67 isolated regions continent-wide where significant lion populations may persist. Of these, only 15 were estimated to maintain at least 500 lions. The study also found that in West Africa, where the species is classified as Regionally Endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species, fewer than 500 lions remain, scattered across eight isolated regions. “Lions have been hit hardest in West Africa, where local governments often lack direct incentives to protect them,“ Henschel said. “While lions generate billions of tourist dollars across Eastern and Southern Africa, spurring governments to invest in their protection, wildlife-based tourism is only slowly developing in West Africa. Currently lions still have little economic value in the region, and West African governments will require significant foreign assistance in stabilizing remaining populations until sustainable local conservation efforts can be developed.“ Panthera collaborates in the Washington-based National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, which is meant to address the most serious threats facing big cats in the wild and help channel financial support to well-designed conservation programs.