Lions are losing ground as their habitat and their numbers steadily decrease. File photo: AP /Riccardo Gangale

KwaZulu-Natal - The king of the Beasts is running out of living space. The number of lions has dropped so low that if all the continent’s animal kings were invited to a lion imbizo there would not be enough of them to fill the seats at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, which has space for more than 50 000 sports fans.

A new expert study, published this week, estimates that there are now only about 32 000 free-ranging lions left in Africa and that many of these animals face a bleak future.

“Lion numbers have declined precipitously in the last century and given that many now live in small, isolated populations, this trend will continue,” 12 carnivore researchers reported in the latest issue of the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

One of the main reasons for the rapid decline of a species that once roamed across Africa, Europe and Asia was the gradual loss of 75 percent of savannah living spaces in Africa as more land was cleared each year for human use.

The 12 researchers, including Paul Funston from Tshwane University of Technology and Rosemary Groom of the University of Johannesburg, said that there were only nine countries in Africa containing at least 1 000 lions each.

These were South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, Botswana and possibly Angola.

Tanzania is home to the largest population, with about 40 percent of Africa’s lions.

“Our maps suggest that lion populations survive in some 67 areas, of which only 15 hold at least 500 lions.”

The decline was especially dramatic in west and central Africa, where more effective conservation was now a matter of urgency. Small populations were also more vulnerable to inbreeding.

Since the last similar survey 10 years ago, five African countries appeared to have lost their lion populations completely.

In west Africa only 525 lions were thought to be alive, while the figure for central Africa was around 2 200.

“Keeping these (central Africa) populations from extinction will require conservation efforts well beyond the dismal performance of the region’s other protected areas.”

The east African region had the healthiest population, with around 18 300 lions, and southern Africa had about 11 100 free-ranging lions (including about 1 700 lions in the Kruger National Park).

The researchers noted, however, that size alone did not guarantee the survival of these carnivores in national parks.

For example, not a single lion had been found recently in the Comoe National Park in west Africa, although this park was a World Heritage Site and roughly half the size of Kruger.

However, they noted that counting lions accurately was inherently problematic because lions often lived at low densities, had large ranges and were difficult to spot.

Another problem was that some data from government and conservation groups might be based on “wishful thinking or national policies designed to put a positive spin on numbers to ensure continued funding”.

And, in some countries, studies funded by hunting groups also tended to inflate lion numbers to ensure continued business.

An example was Tanzania, where there was a considerable variance between population estimates provided by hunter-funded studies and those by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

On a continental level, the researchers found that 24 000 lions could be considered to be living in secure “strongholds”, but more than 6 000 were in populations that had “a very high risk of extinction”.

The study was supported by the National Geographic Society and also involved researchers from Duke University’s School of the Environment and the carnivore conservation group Panthera. - The Mercury