Researchers from Duke University say lions have lost around 75 percent of their habitat in Africa in the past 50 years due to humans. In the past 50 years, Africa’s savannahs has been compromised by human activity at an alarming rate.
Researchers were able to use satellite imagery from Google Earth, human population density data from Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) as well as estimates and surveys of local lion populations to determine the area that was most and least favorable for the lions survival. The researchers found that lions are presently on about 1.3 million square miles of Savannah.
“Existing maps made from low-resolution satellite imagery show large areas of intact Savannah woodlands. Based on our fieldwork in Africa, we knew they were wrong,” said lead author Jason Riggio, currently a PhD student in ecology at the University of California at Davis. “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.”
The disappearance of this habitat has had a devastating effect on the lions, dropping the population down from around 100,000 to as few as 32,000 in the last 50 years.
Co-author of the study, Stuart Pimm, a professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment said, “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. Only 25 percent remains of an ecosystem that once was a third larger than the continental United States.”
“This research is a major step in helping prioritize funding strategies for saving big cats,” study co-author Luke Dollar, the grants program director of National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative said. “Of the estimated 32,000 to 35,000 lions, more than 5,000 of them are located in small, isolated populations, putting their survival in doubt. The research will help us better identify areas in which we can make a difference.”
Last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they have started to consider adding lion to the endangered species list. This would ban Americans from hunting and bringing home lions for trophies and their hides.
“Giving these lions something of a fighting chance will require substantial increases in effort. The next 10 years are decisive for this region, not just for lions but for biodiversity, since lions are indicators of ecosystem health,” said Andrew Jacobson, a member of Pimm’s lab.
Luke Hunter, director of the Panthera conservation group said, “Lions are not going to disappear overnight, but it is quite possible they will wind up in a couple of decades in as dire a straits as the tigers are today.”
The authors concluded in their study that more mapping needs to be done to better enable the conservation of the African lion.
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