As a Western romanticist we often think of the plains of Africa teeming with antelope and zebras gathering around the watering hole in some sort of Lion King-esque vision. And of course who sits at the top of this Circle of Life image? The majestic African Lion.
Often used as a symbol of power, it appears this apex predator has now fallen victim to the threat of mankind. A new report shows that the number of lions across the continent is falling dramatically due to anthropogenic threats such as hunting and habitat loss.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the study claims that some lion populations are at risk of being halved within the next 20 years. By looking at population trends in 47 lion populations containing 8,200 individuals, researchers were able to forecast the population decreases which may occur within the next 20 years. For the lions in West and Central Africa the chance of this happening is 67% whilst the East African populations have a 37% chance of halving in that time.
The study also highlighted the differences between heavily managed populations and the more wild populations. Currently across the continent, lion populations are declining everywhere. The exception to this rule is found within “small, fenced, intensively managed, and funded reserves” which are found in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. Thus there is a real fear that lions may come to rely on these heavily-managed reserves for their long-term survival and they “may no longer be a flagship species of the once vast natural ecosystems across the rest of the continent.”
Lions are currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List however the authors of this paper are calling for their status to be upgraded to Endangered which would mean they would be considered as at “high risk of extinction”. Although traditionally they have been threatened by habitat loss, human conflicts and hunting, a new threat is emerging which may eclipse these.
The traditional medicine market has turned to the lucrative resource of lion bones to compensate for a lack of rare tiger bones. The lion bone trade has been on the increase since 2008 and is believed to be based around the legal captive lion hunts that take place in South Africa although it is unclear whether hunting for lion bones occurs elsewhere in Africa.
If lion numbers are allowed to decline any further, local extinctions will surely occur having detrimental impacts upon the ecosystems they exist in. Moreover this could still occur if they were only allowed to exist in intensely-managed game reserves thus action needs to be taken to prevent further decreases in lion populations .
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