A new study confirms that lions are rapidly and literally losing ground across Africa’s once-thriving savannahs due to burgeoning human population growth and subsequent, massive land-use conversion. Representing the most comprehensive assessment of the state and vitality of African savannah habitat to date, the report maintains that the lion has lost 75% of its original natural habitat in Africa — a reduction that has devastated lion populations across the continent.

“The word savannah conjures up visions of vast open plains teeming with wildlife. But the reality is that massive land-use change and deforestation, driven by rapid human population growth, has fragmented or degraded much of the original savannah. Only 25 percent remains of an ecosystem that once was a third larger than the continental United States,” said Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Pimm and his fellow researchers used high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Earth, coupled with human population density data and estimates of local lion populations, to map areas still favorable to the big cats’ survival.

Their research has identified only 67 isolated areas of savannah across the continent with suitably low human impacts and densities.  Of these, only 10 spots were deemed to be “strongholds” where lions have an excellent chance of survival. Many of the strongholds are located within national parks.

None of the strongholds is located in West Africa, where human populations have doubled in many countries over the last 20 to 30 years with fewer than  500 lions remain in this region, and they are scattered across eight isolated sites.

“Existing maps made from low-resolution satellite imagery show large areas of intact savannah woodlands. Based on our fieldwork in Africa, we knew they were wrong,” explained lead author Jason Riggio, a former member of Pimm’s lab who is now a PhD student in ecology at the University of California at Davis. “Using very high-resolution imagery we could tell that many of these areas are riddled with small fields and extensive, if small, human settlements that make it impossible for lions to survive.”

“Giving these lions something of a fighting chance will require substantial increases in effort. The next 10 years are decisive for this region, not just for lions but for biodiversity, since lions are indicators of ecosystem health,” said Andrew Jacobson, a member of Pimm’s lab.

“This research, which is the most comprehensive assessment of lion numbers to date, is a major step in helping prioritize funding strategies for saving big cats,” said co-author Luke Dollar, a former graduate student of Pimm’s and now the grants program director at National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. “Of the estimated 32,000 to 35,000 lions, more than 5,000 of them are located in small, isolated populations, putting their survival in doubt. The research will help us better identify areas in which we can make a difference.”

“A 75 percent reduction in extent of African savannah is stunning and grim. It emphasizes the urgency for conservation of these great habitats and their magnificent species like lions,” said conservation scientist Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor for Environmental Science and Public Policy at George Mason University and Biodiversity Chair of The Heinz Center.

African savannahs are defined as areas that receive between approximately 11 to 59 inches of rain annually.

The research was funded by National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative, a long-term effort to halt the decline of big cats in the wild through assessment efforts, on-the-ground conservation projects, education and a global public-awareness campaign.

 

“Until the lion has his own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story” – Chinua Achebe

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Photograph from http://savannaenvironment.wordpress.com/african-animals/