Since 1990, lion populations in the West, Central and East Africa have declined sharply, and a few populations have even gone extinct, the study has found. Moreover, under current levels of conservation efforts, around 50 percent of these West, Central and East lion populations, is likely to be wiped out over the next two decades, researchers predict.
"We can not let progress in southern Africa lead us into complacency", added Luke Hunter, co-author of the study and president/chief conservation officer of the conservation group Panthera.
Bauer and his colleagues analysed existing data on populations in different parts of Africa, identifying declines across much of the continent and then modelling future trends.
"There are excellent lion populations that are doing well in East Africa, but it turns out that they're the exception, not the rule". The declines in East African countries were less drastic. The one clear big decline is in Katavai National Park in Tanzania, but those data, which show a steep drop-off from roughly 600 lions in the park in 1996 to zero in 2002, are highly controversial and shouldn't be used to support the argument for a massive regional decline, he says. The loss of lions has a knock-on effect on other organisms in their environment, such as the zebras they prey on and plants that prey eat, says Bauer.
"This is not just about less lions, it is about lions no longer playing a keystone role in functioning ecosystems", lead author Hans Bauer of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at the University of Oxford, told Mongabay.
This, he says, would not only save the lions, but also the biodiversity around them. Now, according to the new study, population models suggest that theres a 67 percent chance lion populations in West Central Africa will be cut in half over the next two decades. 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 up listed to endangered status. Photo by Udayan Dasgupta. Many have perished due to poisoning, unregulated sports hunting and loss of habitat and prey.
The study found, for example, that in East and West Africa where lion populations have declined, herbivore populations have plummeted as well.
The latter good news comes largely from the animals living in areas less frequented by humans, the resultant increase in resources, and the fact that numerous lions live on fenced-in aggressively managed reserves.
The research looked at 47 African lion populations of about 8,221 lions. An additional concern is that fencing may also affect other species beyond lions, says Lichtenfeld.
The trophy hunting that took down Cecil the lion is, at most, a small contributor to lion population declines, Hunter said.
The fate of the lion, one of Africa's largest predators, may be even bleaker than we thought. "Neither of these is mysterious or complicated, but implementing them at large scales requires a major commitment of people, expertise and funding".
There are about 20,000 lions left in the wild - down from more than 200,000 a century ago. Over the past few decades, conservationists have drawn numerous conservation plans to protect the African icon. 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 isnt just true of African governments, either.