Lions Rapidly Approaching Extinction, Population Fell By 2/3 In The Last 50 Years And Lost 3/4 Of Their Previous Range

December 5, 2012 in Animals & Insects

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Lions are rapidly approaching extinction in many parts Africa, new research from Panthera has found. In the last 50 years they have seen their population drop to around 1/3 of its previous size, from around 100,000 in 1960, to around 32,000 today. And perhaps more importantly, they have lost an incredible 75% of their habitat in that same time period.

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Their loss of territory has been due primarily to growing human populations and deforestation, and the subsequent acquisition and conversion of lands for agriculture and other uses.

The new research is the most ‘comprehensive assessment of the state and vitality of African savannah habitat to date’. Done by using Google Earth’s high-resolution satellite imagery, the research analyzed savannah habitats throughout Africa. Modern lions live almost entirely in the savannah. The researchers investigated the lions current range, and “also analyzed human population density data to identify areas of suitable habitat currently occupied by lions. Incredibly, the analysis identified only 67 isolated regions across the continent where significant lion populations may persist. Of these areas, just 15 were estimated to maintainoss a population of at least 500 lions.” If their numbers drop that low, it will be very unlikely that any long-term recovery of their population could occur.

“The reality is that from an original area a third larger than the continental United States, only 25% remains,” explained Stuart Pimm, co-author and Doris Duke Chair of Conservation at Duke University.

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While the researchers think that lions won’t be going completely extinct soon, it seems an inevitability if their territories continue to diminish as they likely will. As populations sizes diminish and various local populations go extinct, too much genetic diversity is lost to ensure a healthy population. The less genetic diversity there is in a species the more susceptible they are to changes in the environment and to diseases, and it also increases the likelihood of inbreeding.

Another major finding of the research is the confirmation that there are fewer than 500 lions remaining in West Africa, spread out in eight separate and isolated regions.

“Lions have been hit hardest in West Africa, where local governments often lack direct incentives to protect them,” Dr. Henschel commented. “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.”

At the beginning of the last ice age, lions, cave lions, the american lion, and related species covered the globe, thriving on nearly every continent before going extinct at the hands of habitat loss, loss of prey, competition with humans, and possibly large-scale natural disasters. The European lion just recently went extinct during roman times, having previously occupied much of Europe. A remnant population survived in the Caucasus until at least the 10th century AD.

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The study was published online this week in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Source: Panthera

Image Credits: Lion Running, Lion, and Cave Art, via Wikimedia Commons

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