Until the lions have their own storyteller, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. —African Proverb
West Africa’s Mandinka tribe has a legend about the greatest of cats, the Wanjilanko.
The Wanjilanko . . . the lion that eats lions. It’s said to be the color of grass, with longer teeth than a lion and a roar that freezes a hunter’s soul. Paralyzed with fear, the hunter becomes easy prey.
Lions, even the Wanjilanko, stalk and ambush by night. When daylight comes, where does the Wanjilanko hide? In the deep gloom of a West African woodland, in the canyons and caves of the wildest tracts of wilderness. Does the Wanjilanko exist, or is it a figment of the human imagination? The answer could go either way, for the Wanjilanko and indeed for the lions it hunts.
On the map, as the lifeblood drains from the lion’s known range, red fades into pink for “possible” range: areas in lions’ historical territory where conditions remain favorable—healthy habitat, enough prey, and low numbers of humans. “And,” adds Henschel, “where there are no data to indicate that lions do not exist.”
The living dead, scientists call them: populations of animals so tiny their extinction is inevitable. A century from now, lions may exist only in zoos or wildlife areas so small as to be quasi-zoos. That’s the view of conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. We are in the midst of a tsunami of extinction, he believes.
“Although the status of the African lion everywhere is concerning,” says Henschel, “the situation is particularly alarming in West and Central Africa.” As few as 1,000 to 2,850 lions may remain there. The species’ range in West Africa was once more than 1.5 million square miles. Today it’s 52,000 square miles, a nearly 97 percent loss.
An inventory of the lions conducted in 2001 and 2002 revealed that only 450 to 1,300 lions remained in West Africa and 550 to 1,550 in Central Africa: just 8 percent of the estimated total for African lions (Panthera leo leo) across the entire continent. In response to those findings, Henschel and colleagues undertook a new survey from 2006 to 2010 in West and Central Africa’s savannas and woodlands. Working alongside Panthera were scientists affiliated with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Côte d’Ivoire Office of Parks and Reserves, the Nigeria National Park Service, and the Wildlife Division of the Forestry Commission of Ghana. They searched high and low for lions.
Their efforts took them from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana to Nigeria, and beyond to the Republic of the Congo and the DRC. They padded along dry riverbeds, old park roads and game trails, and on paths through the Congo Basin’s lowland tropical rain forest. Along the way, they faced the same risks as the lions they sought to find. Henschel negotiated with rebel leaders for access to lands and invited poachers to work with the team.
Before the survey, for example, the researchers identified only one favorable LCU in the Republic of the Congo, at the southern tip of Odzala National Park. A 5,250-square-mile mosaic of savanna and woodland, the park had been marked as the last stronghold for lions in that nation. Henschel and other scientists from Panthera, WCS Congo, and the Congolese ministry responsible for the environment canvassed the savanna sector of Odzala with a combination of foot surveys and camera traps, automatic cameras mounted on trees or poles and triggered by infrared motion sensors.
The surveyors followed commonly used travel corridors for lions. Their circuits included habitat that might attract lion prey such as antelopes and other herbivores: water reservoirs and salt licks, floodplains and marshes. Twenty-five camera traps were installed at three-mile intervals along game trails. The investigators walked 285 miles, and their camera traps snapped 512 photographic “captures.” Leopards were recorded, as were spotted hyenas and several species of smaller carnivores, including African golden cat, serval, and African civet.
Not a single lion was detected.
“Despite persistent rumors about the continued presence of lions in Odzala and in the Batéké Plateau in southern Congo and neighboring Gabon, no evidence for the species has been produced in the last fifteen years,” says Henschel. “In fact, no resident we talked with had seen a lion in his or her lifetime.” In the past decade, a single set of tracks is the only lion spoor glimpsed in the Republic of the Congo.
Were lions ever there? “We believe so,” Henschel says, “but that was then. This is now, unfortunately for lions. It seems reasonable to assume that lions in the [Republic of the] Congo are extinct.”
Lions are losing ground across Africa, even in the savannas of East Africa. Burgeoning human populations and massive land-use conversion are the culprits. In what some have called the most comprehensive assessment of the state of African savannas to date, a paper titled “The Size of Savannah Africa: A Lion’s (Panthera leo) View,” was published in December 2012 in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation. It reports that lions have lost much of their original habitat in Africa. Twelve scientists collaborated in the study, including Henschel and conservation biologist Jason Riggio of Duke University and the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.
Using Google Earth’s high-resolution imagery, they found sixty-seven isolated savannas across the continent where small lion populations likely persist. Of these, they judged, just fifteen contained a population of at least 500 lions. “The reality,” says Stuart Pimm of Duke University, a coauthor of the paper, “is that from an original savanna area a third larger than the continental United States, only 25 percent remains.”
In West Africa, lions are predominantly found in savannas and woodlands similar to those of East and Southern Africa. In parts of the Central African Republic and the DRC, however, lions venture into forest-savanna mosaics. In times past their roars tore through the night in such habitats, from the Congo Basin to West Africa.
That landscape is vanishing. Uncontrolled logging and burning have led to rampant deforestation and habitat destruction, desertification, declining water quality, and other environmental insults, most glaringly in West Africa. Although riverbanks are still lined with ribbons of gallery forest, offering refuges for herbivores, what were once rain forests and woodlands have become savannas, dotted with such trees as acacias interspersed with low scrub bush. In some places, the landscape has become near-desert.
The issues began in the colonial period, when West African farmers planted cash crops that required intensive farming. No fallow periods allowed soil to regenerate and water resources to refill. Then, a half century ago, the size of cattle and goat herds increased without adequate pastureland. Livestock ate the grasses that held body and soil together. Desert sands blew in, choking villages and towns.
Caught in this trap are the region’s lions. The study of Africa’s savannas confirms that in West Africa, fewer than 500 lions still roam the wilds. “It came as one hell of a shock,” says Pimm. Because lions in West Africa are relatively isolated, even from their Central African neighbors, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species classifies them as Regionally Endangered. Lions in Central, East, and Southern Africa are listed as Vulnerable.
The stakes are high. Lions in West and Central Africa are different from those in East and Southern Africa. Geneticist Laura D. Bertola of Leiden University in The Netherlands and other scientists analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from lions throughout Africa, as well as from Panthera leo persica, the Asiatic lion. A small population of the latter, listed as Endangered, hangs by one claw to a last small stronghold in and near the Gir Forest of Gujarat, India. In a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Biogeography, Bertola and coauthors reported that West and Central African lions are more closely related to the Asiatic subspecies than to their counterparts in East and Southern Africa.
Previous studies had suggested that lions in West and Central Africa are smaller in size and weight, have smaller manes, live in smaller groups, eat smaller prey, and may differ in the shape of their skulls, compared with lions elsewhere on the African continent. Bertola’s research showed that the difference is also reflected in their genes. The distinction, she and colleagues say, can be explained by landforms that are barriers to lion dispersal. The Central African rain forest and the Rift Valley, which stretches from Ethiopia to Tanzania and from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Mozambique, may inhibit lions from intermingling.
Ancient climate may also have played a part. Following periods of severe drought 40,000 to 18,000 years ago, during the Late Pleistocene, lions in West and Central Africa may have fallen in numbers. And then there were none. But lions still ranged deep into Asia and found favorable conditions in the Middle East. When West and Central Africa were later recolonized by lions, the genetic relationship reveals, they must have come from the Middle East and southwest Asia, rather than from East or Southern Africa.
Historically, lions were found “from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean, from Senegal to Somalia, and from Greece and Yemen to central India,” but “range collapse from persecution by humans has been rapid and continual.” So note molecular geneticist Jean Dubach of the Loyola University Medical School in Maywood, Illinois, and colleagues in a February 2013 paper published in Conservation Genetics. Lions were gone from the Cape Region of South Africa by the mid-nineteenth century; from Turkey, Syria, Tunisia, and Algeria by the end of the nineteenth century; and from Morocco, Pakistan, and Iran between 1922 and 1942. In Asia, only the population in Gujarat remains.
The researchers’ mtDNA analyses further confirm the close relationship between Asian and West and Central African lions relative to other lions. “The IUCN manages just two forms of Panthera leo: Panthera leo leo across Africa, and Panthera leo persica in India,” says mammalogist Bruce D. Patterson of the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the coauthors of the paper. “Yet the principal subdivision of lions genetically is within Africa, between the lions in Eastern and Southern Africa versus all others. There is a lot to recommend the IUCN adopting a three-taxon management plan for lions.” The two groups in Africa, he suggests, should be listed and managed separately.
Were that the case, what would West and Central African lions be called? Panthera leo senegalensis.
If lions in West and Central Africa indeed went extinct once, could that again be the fate of P. leo senegalensis? “It’s already happening,” says Henschel.
“We initially intended to use a combination of foot surveys and camera trapping,” says Henschel. “But the overflights showed very high poacher and pastoralist activity, so we abandoned the idea of camera traps.” Vehicle access was limited to two jeep
tracks. “The lack of a road network in the park’s interior prohibited the use of ‘call-up’ stations, where we play animal sounds over loudspeakers to attract lions,” Henschel says, “so we conducted spoor searches on foot along predefined circuits.”
The surveyors covered more than 375 miles, concentrating on the core area that had shown ungulates during overflights. They found leopards in areas with dense gallery forests. Spotted hyenas were widespread. Humans were no less so, as indicated by eighty-eight campsites, most of them poachers’ dens. “In one camp we found evidence for the persecution of lions,” says Henschel, including “a large steel gin trap” that snaps the legs of the unwary.
The biologists encountered twenty small groups of people: sixteen groups of poachers and four of pastoralists. The poachers fled or reacted aggressively. The twelve pastoralists were more approachable. None had seen or heard lions in recent years, however. The last lion anyone could remember was in 2004.
“Our results suggest that lions no longer occur in Comoé National Park,” says Henschel. “Since this is the best area for lions in Côte d’Ivoire, the prospects for lions in the country are poor.”
But news for West and Central African lions is not all bad. The region’s best hope for P. leo senegalensis may lie where the buffalo and antelope still roam: in Pendjari National Park in northwestern Benin, which adjoins Arly National Park in Burkina Faso.
Along with W Transborder Park spanning Niger, Burkina Faso, and Benin—“W” refers to the shape-hugging bends of the Niger River—they form the WAP (W-Arly-Pendjari) complex. At 12,000 square miles, WAP is the largest protected ecosystem in West Africa.
From March 19 to May 22, 2012, Henschel and scientists at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin and the Regional WAP/UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services) Program surveyed nearly 10,500 square miles of the WAP complex, the areas known to harbor lions. They conducted spoor transects about every nine miles along the dirt-road “network.” Lion numbers were highest near permanent rivers in the national parks of the Arly-Pendjari block, with the lowest numbers in dry parts of the W block. The total lion population in the WAP complex was estimated at 311 lions: 148 in Benin, 147 in Burkina Faso, and 15 in Niger.
“With the relatively low cost of the survey in dollars,” says Henschel, “we recommend repeating the survey biennially using the same protocol. At this time, there’s nowhere more important for lion conservation in West and Central Africa than the WAP complex.”
Lions aren’t safe even there, however. In March 2012, two poachers hiding a lion skin and bones were arrested by a patrol team in the Banikoara sector of W National Park in Benin. The poachers had killed the lion to offer it to the king of the town of Banikoara.
The story of West and Central Africa’s feline kings and queens—the lions and lionesses—and their future is less about P. leo senegalensis than it is about Homo sapiens.
“Weak management of lions’ habitat due to a lack of funds has led to a collapse in lion prey populations—and in lions,” says Henschel. One West African park’s management budget is, he says, “roughly US $20 per square kilometer, incredibly low. To reverse the declines and stabilize populations of lions and their prey, we need a huge increase in financial backing for protected areas.”
Projects supporting conservation issues “seem to swarm in the Congo Basin rain forests and the East African plains,” Henschel says. “West African savannas are practically devoid of international conservation efforts.” He points out that the WAP complex, the last best hope for the West African lion, has received sustained assistance from Germany and the European Union. Hence, here be lions.
“Conservationists are already failing to save elephants and tigers, and lions won’t fare any better unless there’s a change in approach,” writes ecologist Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, in an op-ed published on April 25, 2013, in the Los Angeles Times. “If the world really wants to conserve iconic wildlife for the next 1,000 years, we need a latter-day Marshall Plan that integrates the true costs of park management into the economic priorities of international development agencies.”
The empty forest, or empty savanna, syndrome, it’s called: a habitat that echoes only silence, its lifeblood drained by a gamut of environmental problems.
The savannas and forests of West and Central Africa grow quieter with each passing year, their lion roars fainter. The last lions are vanishing from places like Pendjari. But for the Wanjilanko, the only voices we soon may hear will be our own.