East African lion populations could decline by 50% by 2035 claims survey

Pride of Lions
Portrait of three Masai Mara lions resting at morning time. By Ben Lieu Song

A new study has found that lion numbers in East Africa could shrink by half over the next two decades.

Lions can today be found in the wild in 27 countries, all but a handful of them in Africa. In 1980, an estimated 75,000 roamed free.

However, since then, thousands have perished from poisoning, poorly regulated sports hunting, and the decimation of their habitat and prey. Until recently, scientists believed around 30,000 remained, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature, revised that estimate to being closer to 20,000.

In West and Central Africa, the outlook is even grimmer for lions as pressure from the human population is high and conservation efforts are low.

Hans Bauer, a lion research at Oxford University based in Ethiopia has said that the declines in the lion population are no surprise.

Bauer and his fellow scientists compiled and analyzed data from surveys of 47 lion populations found in protected areas across Africa, and then estimated the growth rate of each. They have published their report online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their analyses revealed a steep decline in almost all lion populations in West and Central Africa during the next 20 years with a 67% chance that the region’s lion population will decline by 50%.

When looking at the situation in East Africa, the team found less of a decline and estimated a 37% chance its lion numbers would shrink by the same percentage and time period.

A lion in the Masai Mara by Paul Mannix
A lion in the Masai Mara by Paul Mannix

However, in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa lions were doing “extremely well,” with their numbers even increasing in some parks.

The difference is believed to be down to how the animals are managed with them being left free to roam in East Africa, opposed to living in well-funded, intensively managed populations, often surrounded by fences that keep the cats in and people out in South Africa.

As the human population grows, the lack of adequate protections in East Africa could spell trouble for the felines, claims University of Minnesota lion researcher and ecologist Craig Packer.

“We’re in danger of losing lions from the iconic savanna landscapes of East Africa because the mechanisms that are in place to protect them there are inadequate,” he says. “Such loss could have ripple effects across the entire ecosystem.”

However, Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina disputes the conclusions about the lion population in East Africa and points to the fact that those in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya are either increasing or experiencing only a slight decline.