Lions are one of Africa’s most iconic species, but that doesn’t protect them from man-made threats. Researchers have now, for the first time, determined what specific problems lion populations have to contend with in over 20 African countries. Accordingly, the big cats are threatened by livestock farming in some places, while civil wars play a larger role elsewhere. The researchers hope to use the new data to contribute to better protection strategies for different populations.
It is estimated that lions are now extinct in at least 92 percent of their original range. In the last 20 years alone, the iconic big cats have lost a lot of space and population density and are now even considered endangered. But in order to protect the remaining 20,000 to 25,000 animals, you first have to know exactly what specific problems the lions are facing and what measures would help them most effectively.
An Index to Lion Conservation
Researchers led by Samantha Nicholson from the University of Oxford have now, for the first time, determined which factors threaten their future for 62 lion populations in 25 African countries. To do this, they took into account both ecological threats such as poaching and the spread of livestock farming as well as socio-economic conditions of the respective African country, including conservation efforts and economic stability.
From the various factors, Nicholson and her team were finally able to calculate an individual threat index, which indicates how threatened a lion population is compared to others. Zero corresponds to no threat at all, values above one represent a strong threat to the lions. Based on the identified causes of the threat, the researchers were also able to show how much and what type of protection would help the big cats get back on their feet in the long term.
Somalia’s lions are the most endangered
The result: “Almost half of the range countries were classified as highly fragile in both criteria: These countries together represented 39 percent of the lions’ range,” report Nicholson and her colleagues. The lions in Somalia therefore have the worst prospects for the future. There is only a single lion population there and their habitat is not even protected. In addition, the livestock industry here has penetrated furthest into lion territory compared to all other countries and is therefore increasingly pushing the big cats back. Expressed in numbers, the country currently has a threat index of 1.72, as the researchers report.
In contrast, lion-friendly Botswana has an index of just 0.13. Four large populations live there, which are also well connected to each other. In addition, the number of people and livestock in lion areas is particularly low, so the animals can live undisturbed. From a socio-economic perspective, Botswana also has a relatively strong economy and strong conservation efforts, as Nicholson and her team have found.
Differentiated protection necessary
But the threat to a lion population cannot be determined from the calculated index alone, as Nicholson’s colleague Amy Dickman explains: “Some populations may ultimately have similar fragility values, but they are driven by different threats.” Benin and Sudan are examples of this. “While the individual lion populations of both countries may appear similar at first glance, they are likely to require different investments and perhaps even different types of measures to be successfully protected. Putting money into protecting Sudanese lions could be relatively ineffective unless sociopolitical factors such as the civil war are addressed first.”
The war is currently hampering the work of park rangers and other conservationists and even the biggest injection of money could not change that. “Therefore, stakeholders, investors and conservation groups need to be aware of these differences when approaching lion conservation and assessing how much money, time or other investments will be required to achieve success,” continued Dickman. The researchers hope that their findings will contribute to more differentiated protection of individual lion populations in the long term.
Source: University of Oxford; Specialist article: Communications Earth & Environment, doi: 10.1038/s43247-023-00959-3