The study compiled survey data from 47 of the 67 areas across the continent where lions are still known to occur (the remaining 20 areas did not include enough survey data to be useful). Recent estimates suggest that, in total, there are a little more than 8,000 lions left in the sampled areas.
After analyzing the survey data, the researchers found that populations in West, Central and East Africa are all declining, with West and Central Africa being of particular concern. Now, according to the new study, population models suggest that there`s a 67 percent chance lion populations in West Central Africa will be cut in half over the next two decades. And the models suggest that there`s a 37 percent chance that lion populations in East Africa will meet the same fate.
In contrast, the researchers found that lions in Southern Africa were increasing in most places, almost certainly thanks to intensive management of their populations, including fenced wildlife reserves designed to keep out poachers and prevent conflict with humans. There are also other notable differences between Southern Africa and the rest of the continent - for instance, there tend to be fewer humans and more prey available in Southern Africa as well.
"The big surprise was the dichotomy between East and Southern Africa," said Hans Bauer, the study`s lead author and a lion conservationist with the University of Oxford`s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. He said while conservationists were aware that the species was declining in East Africa and relatively stable in Southern Africa, they did not expect such a marked difference between the two regions.
However, Laurence Frank, a lion conservation expert and associate research zoologist at the University of California - Berkeley who was not involved with the study, said the news is not that surprising to him.
"The paper is yet more confirmation of what we`ve known for a long time," said Frank, who has worked in wildlife conservation in East Africa, mostly Kenya, for decades. "There are very good aerial count data for Kenyan wildlife starting in 1977, and as of 10 years ago, those wildlife counts indicated a 70 percent decline between 1977 and, say, 2007." Frank also noted that even in protected areas in the region, which tend to be rather small to begin with, lion populations have experienced declines, suggesting that better management techniques are needed.
One starting place, the authors note, could be stricter classifications from conservation organizations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains a list of the world`s wildlife and classifies them on a scale according to how vulnerable they are to extinction - for example, "critically endangered" is the most serious classification, while "least concern" means the population is doing well. The IUCN already considers lions in West Africa to be their own subpopulation and lists them as critically endangered, while the rest of the African lions are merely listed as "vulnerable."
But according to IUCN classification criteria, if the lions were likely to decrease by 50 percent over the course of three lion generations, they would be uplisted to "endangered" status. Since this study predicts that lions across the continent (except in most areas of Southern Africa) are likely to decline by one-half over the next 20 years, the researchers recommend dividing the lions up into further subpopulations and reclassifying the declining populations as "endangered."
"This paper is going to shake things up a bit," Bauer predicted. "For the next year or two, I`m sure people will be looking at this paper and it may lead to some changes."
But Frank cautioned that a mere reclassification will not be enough to help the lions. "These categories are created by the conservation organizations, they`re very important for academics and the interested public to have an idea of what`s going on," he said. "But I really question their impact on the ground unless they somehow motivate the governments in charge to pay more attention to what`s happening."
According to Frank, the failure of governments to prioritize wildlife is one of the biggest challenges facing the conservation sphere today - and it isn`t just true of African governments, either. "The problem is that so few people, even in the West, really care about wildlife," he said.
This problem translates into a severe lack of funding for conservation efforts, Bauer said. "We have written hundreds of papers on how to conserve lions," he said. "We know how to do it, it`s just not a priority for governments and donors."
But he`s optimistic, citing last summer`s frenzy of outrage over the high-profile death of Cecil the lion , who was killed during a trophy hunt, as reason to believe that people do care. "[There was] so much public mobilization around that case," Bauer said. "It shows that if we send out the right message, I think people will start acting."
The case has since sparked heated discussions on the ethics of big-game trophy hunting, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently engaged in final considerations over a set of regulations that would not only list the lion as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, but also require special permits for hunters to import lion trophies.
Still, many conservationists have been critical of the outpouring of support for Cecil when big game hunting accounts for a relatively small proportion of the threats currently facing lions in Africa. Frank wrote a letter to the editor for The New York Times pointing out a "lost opportunity to address the real reason lions are disappearing." As Bauer pointed out, the top three threats to lions today are habitat destruction, prey depletion and conflict with humans, which more often manifests itself in the form of bushmeat trading or retaliation killing aimed at stopping lions from preying on livestock.
"I think the take-home of this paper is that it`s going to cost a great deal more money, and that money has to come from the West, if we`re going to see anything like real ecosystems full of wildlife [survive] in Africa," Frank said. "Otherwise, there will be a few little Disneylands of African wildlife left in 100 years, but nothing like what we have seen and what people still imagine."
Such a loss would be devastating in more ways than one, Bauer said. Being top predators on the African landscape, the natural ecosystem would be "incomplete" if they were to disappear. But on a more emotional level, he said, "What is Africa without a lion?"
Furthermore, the continued loss of lions and other large predators on the planet would make for an "extremely boring world," Frank concluded, pointing to Europe and North America as places where human influence has nearly wiped out all the large carnivores that used to roam the continents. "Africa is the last continent which, until recently, still had an intact functioning mammalian megafauna," he said. "And now that`s nearly gone."