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West Africa. The Lion King may sleep forever

The lion of West Africa is on the verge of extinction. Only a few hundred individuals are surviving. But their days are numbered unless strict measures are adopted.

There is a serious probability that the lion, symbol of bravery and totem of the Gourmantché tribe of Burkina Faso, who inspired legends and was adopted by the national teams of Senegal and Cameroon, may disappear from West African savannahs. Cédric Vermeulen, who teaches the “rational management of terrestrial wildlife” at the Gembloux Faculties of the University of Liège (Belgium) and at the UNESCO-sponsored Regional Postgraduate Training School on Integrated Management of Tropical Forests and Lands in Kinshasa, rings the alarm bell. The lion’s extinction would not only be sad from a cultural point of view but would also be dramatic for biodiversity, explains Vermeulen. Indeed, this animal is a sub-species who is quite different from its Eastern African cousin. The West African lion’s mane is smaller and he has the reputation to roar less. According to the American NGO Panthera, only 250 remain in the region. Most live in the last remaining large block of savannahs with the last elephants, lycaons and cheetahs of the region; in the complex formed by the W-Arly-Pendjari national park and the contiguous hunting areas which overlap the borders of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. Some residual populations survive in the Niokolo Koba National Park in Senegal or in Ghana’s Mole National Park. But their isolation and small numbers make it difficult for the latters to survive in the long-term.

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According to Cédric Vermeulen, the first cause for the extinction of the lion is the demographic explosion. In the 1970’s, the lions’ roar could be still heard in the outskirts of the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. Nowadays, they can only be found in a few protected areas. Other important actors of the lion’s extermination are the shepherds who use to poison the carcasses of cows to get rid of the feline predators. Fourty years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture in Burkina was even distributing the strychnine for that purpose to cattlemen. This is no longer the case but much harm has been done. Poaching which decimates the populations of preys for the lions, the slash and burn agriculture which destroys the lions’ habitat and the indirect poisoning by pesticides used by cotton farmers are the other killers. Lions get also sometimes killed because of the so-called magic virtues of lion’s fangs and claws. As a result, we are on the verge of an ecologic disaster with the foretold disappearance of the lion who is the big regulator of the big savannah herbivores such as antelopes and buffalos.
Now, there isn’t a consensus on the adequate strategy to save the West African lion. In front of the danger of his extinction, Panthera and other NGOs campaign for the registration of the animal to Annex 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in order to ban the trade of trophies. The aim is to clamp down on commercial hunting. But Vermeulen disagrees. For certain species, such registration to Annex I and a total ban on hunting is good idea, says the Belgian conservationist who advocated in favour of such ban on the trade of ivory which is organized by mafia. But Dr Vermeulen and the authorities in charge of wildlife protection in the three above-mention African countries doubt that a similar ban would be relevant in the case of the lion because it would bring to an end the entire lion safaris system. And that would be counterproductive since the largest populations of lions are found in hunting areas which are managed by private funds which have a vested interest in protecting the lions in order to perpetuate their commercial activity.

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Can the lion still be saved?

The lion safari hunter is indeed a trophies hunter who wants to put the lion’s head in his living room, explains Vermeulen. If the trade of these trophies is banned, the most likely is that hunting areas will then refocus their business on the buffalo. Yet, if the lion becomes persona non grata in such hunting areas, nobody will have anymore an interest to protect him, warns Vermeulen and he will be slaughtered. Indeed, points out Vermeulen, it isn’t the hunting safaris which reduce the numbers of lions but the human pressure. Such view coincides with the observations made by University of Zimbabwe conservationists who concluded that in South Africa, “well monitored trophy hunting is inherently self-regulating because modest off take is required to ensure high trophy quality” and claim that it has facilitated the recovery of black wildebeest and Cape Moutain zebra. Yet, shooting quota must be awarded cautiously like in Benin. Contrarily to the illegal poaching of elephants, the lions safari only concerns a reduced number of lions, which selected by the Park administration on the basis of inventories. But the only to guarantee the sustainability of the safaris is to make sure that the profits are better shared by the industry, the owners of lodges and the local populations, including the shepherds who need to be compensated for the loss of cattle, argues Cédric Vermeulen.

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Another dimension of the problem is that the extinction of the lion would destroy employments since the lion finds itself at the top of the hunting safari economy, from the airport, to the hotels, the lodges, the tour operators, the park rangers, the scouts, etc… which may generate between several hundreds and several thousands of jobs in Benin and Burkina Faso. Now, can the lion still be saved ? On the one hand, there are reasons to be optimistic, says Vermeulen, if one bears in mind that Burkina Faso and Benin are considered as model countries in terms of wildlife protection. But on the other hand, the small number of surviving lions raises the risk of consanguinity problems that may hamper the reproduction process and the lack of consensus between actors on the adequate strategy to protect the lions does not bode well for the future. According to Vermeulen, it is essential anyway that the views of the main stakeholders which are the Conservation Authorities of the concerned African states are taken into account.

François Misser

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