West African lions, the lean, majestic creatures that used to roam the region, have dwindled down to a population of about 400 and are facing extinction, according to an aptly titled paper, "The Lion in West Africa Is Critically Endangered," published last week in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.  

A team of scientists spent six years surveying likely habitats across 11 countries, and were shocked and disappointed to find how much they had underestimated the decline of the lion population. Overall, fewer than 35,000 lions remain on the continent — a fraction of the 100,000 who lived in Africa 50 years ago. According to one of the report's authors, Dr. Philipp Henschel, his team learned that several protected areas have fallen into disrepair:

"When we set out in 2006 to survey all the lions of West Africa, the best reports suggested they still survived in 21 protected areas. We surveyed all of them, representing the best remaining lion habitat in West Africa. Our results came as a complete shock; all but a few of the areas we surveyed were basically paper parks, having neither management budgets nor patrol staff, and had lost all their lions and other iconic large mammals.” 

The authors say they only discovered four populations of lions across five of the countries they visited — one in Senegal, two in Nigeria and one in a region on the borders of Burkina Faso, Benin and Niger. Out of roughly 400, only about 250 were fully mature. Of the four distinct populations, one had more than 50 adult lions — the minimum needed for the community to be self-sustaining. 

According to the researchers, the West African lion population has been so dramatically winnowed due to a number of factors, including competition from human predators for their prey. National Geographic elaborates: 

The lion's historic range in West Africa was drastically reduced by large-scale land use changes, Henschel said. As people planted farms, cut down trees, and hunted wildlife, the big cats had few places to go. The small islands of protected parks became their only hope. But in the past few years, lions in those parks have been killed by local people in retaliation for killing some of their livestock. An even bigger problem, Henschel said, is poaching of the lions' prey to supply local bushmeat markets. With the economy in the region depressed and fish stocks off the coast depleted, hungry people have increasingly turned to hunting animals in protected areas.

Figures courtesy of PLOS ONE

In this way, the lion depletion points to challenges faced by West African residents over the past few years, including drought and famine. According to Henschel, "We are talking about some of the poorest counties in the world — many governments have bigger problems than protecting lions." The lion population is also suffering because West Africa has had difficulty drawing a tourist population to the nature preserves, which disincentivizes officials from investing in their upkeep. 

According to the authors, the remaining lions occupy less than one percent of the land historically used by lions. 

Figure courtesy of PLOS ONE

Currently, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is reviewing lion taxonomy and could classify the West African lion a subspecies, thanks to its unique genetic coding and distinctive habits (West African lions, for example, live in smaller familial units than their East African counterparts). The authors argue that such a classification could save West Africa's lions, writing "we encourage revision of lion taxonomy, to recognize the genetic distinctiveness of West African lions and highlight their potentially unique conservation value." They made further recommendations to help protect the dying population: 

Further, we call for listing of the lion as critically endangered in West Africa, under criterion C2a(ii) for populations with <250 mature individuals. Finally, considering the relative poverty of lion range states in West Africa, we call for urgent mobilization of investment from the international community to assist range states to increase management effectiveness of PAs retaining lions.

Hopefully, the region's lions will be among those successfully brought back from the brink of extinction.