Farms, Settlements Shrinking African Lion Habitat

By Alex Johnston On December 5, 2012 @ 2:04 pm In Africa | No Comments

A lioness is pictured on Nov. 18, 2012 in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

A lioness is pictured on Nov. 18, 2012 in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

The population of lions in sub-Saharan Africa is dwindling at a quick pace, according to a recent study, which found that lions have declined by more than 75 percent in the past 50 years, as farms and settlements proliferate.

The study found that there are probably only around 32,000 lions still living on the continent. In 1960, there were as many as 100,000 lions living in Africa. West African lions have experienced the greatest decline in population with only as few as 500 left in the region. Duke University researchers led the study, which was published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

Researchers pinned the blame on the loss of the lion population on an increase in farming and development over that half-century span. And further, around 6,000 lions presently are in population centers with a high risk of going extinct.

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

—Stuart Pimm, professor, Duke University

“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,” Duke professor Stuart Pimm said in a statement.

“Only 25 percent remains of an ecosystem that once was a third larger than the continental United States,” said Pimm.

There were only 67 isolated areas in the savannah that experienced low human impact and of those spots, only 10 are considered places where lions have a good chance at survival, the researchers said. There are none in West Africa, where human population has doubled in recent years.

Researchers used high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth to create accurate maps of the remaining areas that might work as lion habitats. They also compared their data with lion population records.

“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,” said Jason Riggio, who worked with Pimm in conducting the study.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the African lion as vulnerable, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last week that it would consider labeling African lions as endangered, meaning that American hunters cannot hunt them.

Andrew Jacobson, a research associate with Pimm, said, “The next 10 years are decisive” for the African savannah, “not just for lions but for biodiversity, since lions are indicators of ecosystem health.”

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