Shrinking lion numbers in Africa: 40% geographic populations have 50 or fewer big cats

Somalian and Malawian lion populations most fragile; Paper points to need for including socio-political aspects along with ecology for lion conservation

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Monday 18 September 2023
The study looked at a total 62 geographic populations and found lion populations to be severely low compared to the calculated carrying capacity. Photo: iStock__

Socio-political factors are threatening already fragile lion populations in Africa, according to a new study. Somalian and Malawian big cat populations were found to be the most threatened when socio-political and ecological fragility were examined and Ethiopia’s Maze National Park had the most ecologically fragile geographic population.  

The study Socio-political and ecological fragility of threatened, free-ranging African lion populations, published in journal Nature Communications, observed that “Somalia was the most fragile lion range country, followed by Sudan.”

The threatened species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) were estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000 in number and may be declining, the report said.

Lions may have been extirpated from about 92 per cent of their historical ranges,it estimated, adding a 36 per cent decline in species range has been witnessed over the past 21 years. 

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The study looked at a total 62 geographic populations and found lion populations to be severely low compared to the calculated carrying capacity. Describing the ecological characteristics and fragility of geographic lion populations, about 41.9 per cent had 50 or fewer lions, the analysis said. Another 10 had between 51 and 100 lions, while only seven populations were estimated to hold 1,000 or more lions. 

“On average, lions were estimated to be at around 33.3 per cent (range 1.9 per cent-328.2 per cent) of predicted carrying capacity,” it stated.

The research observed that southern African countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia have recorded an increase of population by 12 per cent between 1993 and 2014. But the remaining lion habitats have seen a decline by 60 per cent, especially in west and central Africa. 

The lions also face other threats such as poaching for prey, indiscriminate killing due to human-lion conflict, bushmeat and others, which are evidently found in eastern and southern Africa. Central and west Africa face threats such as prey depletion, livestock encroachment and small population size. 

Protected areas or strongholds also make lion populations vulnerable, researchers noted. It found that bushmeat poaching with snares led to local extinction of lions in Nsumbu National Park in Zambia and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, also driving lion populations to near extinction owing to poaching.

Almost a third of the populations maintained lions with less than 10 per cent of carrying capacity, while only three populations that is Akagera, Greater Limpopo and Lake Manyara, amounting to five per cent had carrying capacity ranging between 50-100 per cent of their total carrying capacity.

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Five populations, Bubye valley conservancy, Kidepo valley, Manyara Ranch, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and Greater Mapungubwe, that is 8.1 per cent, had lion populations exceeding carrying capacity between 121.3 per cent to 328.1 per cent.  

With regards to ecological characteristics and fragility of national lion populations and lion range countries, the researchers found that 24 per cent, that is six of the 25 lion ranges, had 50 lions or less and eight countries that is 32 per cent had 1,000 or more lions. 

Tanzania recorded to have the highest number of lions with 8,000 population — 34 per cent. While Tanzania and Botswana alone contributed to wild 48 per cent of the total lion populations. 

Over half of Africa’s lion range countries — 56 per cent — supported less than one per cent of lion population each. In terms of national lion populations countries like Ethiopia, Malawi and Cameroon noted to have most ecologically fragile lion populations, with the last two countries suffering from large edge effects and small population sizes against their potential carrying capacity. 

Lion populations will see increased threat given the anthropogenic pressures, habitat conversion, depleting prey and unsustainable hunting, the paper stressed. It also pointed out that to understand and counter the threats and make the conservation plans likely to succeed, it is imperative to consider the ecological and socio-political factors. 

“For example, poor governance is often a major limiting factor to effective conservation, and countries that face major challenges such as conflict, poverty, political instability, low human development or rapidly growing human populations are unlikely to be able to prioritise conservation or conduct it effectively,” it noted.

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Another significant detail of the results put forth by scientists is that lion range countries as more or less fragile in terms of socio-political scenario scored poorly in Global Multidimensional Poverty Index.

“Almost all African lion range countries are in the top 50 per cent (highest poverty), with nearly three quarters in the top 25 per cent. The 10 countries with the most ecologically fragile lion populations are all in the top 50 per cent of acutely poor countries. The global community are expecting some of the poorest countries to carry an expensive burden, which is inequitable and likely unsustainable,” it observed.

On the other hand, lions ranging over wealthier countries in north Africa and middle east and central asia have been extirpated from those areas. The researchers argue that the IUCN demanded consideration of a broader perspective in lion conservation about 15 years ago, but it continued to be ignored in conservation assessments.

“The time has come to finally include and compare the socio-political contexts in which remaining lion populations survive. Assessing socio-political alongside ecological pressures is essential to understanding threats and developing effective conservation strategies and priorities,” the researchers concluded.

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