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The lion Panthera leo is one of the world’s best known and most charismatic species. As an apex predator, it is a keystone species ecologically, and its population status in an area is indicative of the health of the ecosystem as a whole. WCS’s long-term vision is for lions to be at carrying capacity in all of the sites where we are working to conserve them. We envision the lion playing its full ecological role as a top predator across a significant part of its original range, and continuing to serve as an icon for Africa’s wild places. Although lions are classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, lion populations in West Africa are particularly small and fragmented and have been recently classified as Critically Endangered. Recent genetic studies have highlighted the difference between lions in West and Central Africa from those in southern and East Africa, suggesting that lions in West and Central Africa may merit distinct taxonomic status. Formerly widespread across northern Nigeria, today lions survive in only two sites in the country: Kainji Lake National Park and Yankari Game Reserve.
More than 90% of the lion’s original range has now been lost across Africa. The main threats facing lions today are: habitat loss and degradation, reduction of wild prey and retaliatory and other illegal killing of lions. Habitat loss has led to some populations becoming small and isolated, especially in West Africa. It is estimated that fewer than 50 lions survive in Nigeria. This decline is due to increasing human populations, and the spread of subsistence and commercial-scale agriculture; latterly, climate change is also playing a role, and corridors connecting populations are being lost due to the spread of development, agriculture, and of large infrastructure projects. This has led to some populations becoming small and isolated, especially in West Africa.
In Nigeria this precipitous decline is linked to severe depletion of their natural prey base due to hunting and habitat loss. With the loss of their natural prey lions have little option but to feed upon domestic livestock, the increase in human-lion conflict inevitably results in their direct persecution – typically by poisoning livestock carcasses. At the same time, human population growth and agricultural expansion is causing an unprecedented influx of nomadic livestock into protected areas as alternative grazing reserves disappear. During aerial censuses of Yankari in 2006 and 2011 cattle were by far the most abundant species recorded although the situation has improved considerably since WCS signed a co-management agreement with Bauchi State Government in 2014. Lions may also be killed for cultural reasons, including traditional use of lion parts for medicinal use in northern Nigeria. Without urgent and concerted action lions will continue to decline and may in time disappear from Nigeria completely.
Over the next 25 years, our goal is to increase lion populations by 50% in all of the WCS sites where lions occur. In this time, Africa will have seen major increases in its human population and development, but with the appropriate strategy and actions across the continent, we believe that this can - and must - be achieved. Fortunately, lions can breed rapidly, so have high recovery potential if threats can be abated.
Effective Law Enforcement and Protected Area Management is the key to conserving lions and their prey. This includes 1) Ensuring that rangers have the ability to do their job effectively, through focused ranger training programs, provision of equipment, and ensuring that they are compensated adequately. 2) Improving the ability of rangers to detect and respond to poaching through strategic GPS-based SMART (Spatial Management and Reporting Tool) monitoring, planning and adaptive management of patrolling. 3) Improving the efficiency of patrols by establishing intelligence networks through local communities to identify potential poachers and their mode and area of operations. 4) Ensuring that due legal process is followed for anyone apprehended, by capacity building for better case management to increase the effectiveness of prosecutions, and raising awareness in the judiciary about wildlife crime and the laws to prevent it.
Community Conservation. WCS fully recognizes that it is essential to involve local people in conservation efforts to save lions in Nigeria.
Conservation Education and Raising Levels of Awareness within local communities is essential for long-term success and a vitally important part of our work. In Yankari our schools-based education outreach program includes regular field trips to Yankari and focuses on the ecological importance played by lions in helping to control herbivores and disease.
Engagement with livestock and pastoralism including strengthening land tenure and grazing rights for local pastoralists, creation of grazing reserves, as well as essential health and husbandry interventions to ensure livestock rearing is compatible with wildlife conservation. Supporting pastoralist livelihoods, including access to markets, is considered essential to secure their support for lion conservation.