A new analysis of population trends across nearly four-dozen lion populations in Africa suggests that the iconic animal's numbers may be cut in half, in key regions, within 20 years.
The finding comes from a multi-organizational team of researchers, writing in a newly published study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The researchers found most alarming the lion populations in west and central Africa. They suggest that the big cats in those regions, already in sharp decline, could see their numbers drop yet 50 percent further in the next two decades.
Lions in east Africa were declining as well, the team found, although at a less rapid rate than those in the west and central regions.
The scientists reached these conclusions following statistical analyses of data on 47 lion populations throughout Africa. The only population increase borne out by the data came from the southern countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
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 many of the lions live on fenced-in, aggressively managed reserves. These lions don't have to contend with their wild lands being converted by local herding cultures into grazing lands, which crowds out the big cats' usual prey and brings them into more conflict with people.
"These findings clearly indicate that the decline of lions can be halted, and indeed reversed, as in southern Africa," said the study's lead author, Hans Bauer, of Oxford University. "Unfortunately, lion conservation is not happening at larger scales, leading to a vulnerable status of lions globally."
"We cannot 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. "Many lion populations are either gone or expected to disappear within the next few decades."
Hunter noted that the loss of an apex predator like the lion would have a major impact on Africa's natural order.
"The lion plays a pivotal role as the continent's top carnivore," he explained, "and the free-fall of Africa's lion populations we are seeing today could inexorably change the landscape of Africa's ecosystems."
"If we don't address these declines urgently, and at a massive scale, the intensively managed populations in southern Africa will be a poor substitute for the freely roaming lion populations in the iconic savannahs of East Africa," Paul Funston, Panthera's lion program senior director.