Conservation group adds the African lion to Red List of endangered animals

Friday July 10 2015

Lion numbers have been quickly declining in East and West Africa, forcing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify the “king of the jungle” as Vulnerable on its updated Red List. FILE PHOTO | TEA GRAPHIC

The African lion, an iconic symbol of strength, is one of the latest additions to the growing list of animals threatened with extinction.

Lion numbers have been quickly declining in East and West Africa, forcing the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to classify the “king of the jungle” as Vulnerable on its updated Red List.

In the latest update, IUCN said that despite successful conservation drives in Southern Africa — Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — the African lion will remain listed as vulnerable at the global level due to declines of 60 per cent in other regions.

Founded in 1964, the IUCN Red List is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. It assesses the conservation status of species, subspecies, and varieties and even selected sub-populations on a global scale. It highlights those species that are facing a higher risk of global extinction (ie those listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable).

Joining the African lion on the vulnerable list is the solitary African golden cat. The two African mammals are among 22,784 species that may soon disappear if measures are not taken to protect them. The number represents an increase of 371 from 22,413 a year ago.

The status of the African lion is even worse in West Africa, where massive decline in numbers has been reported mainly due to habitat conversion, a decline in prey caused by unsustainable hunting, and human-lion conflict — prompting the IUCN to place the region’s subpopulation on the Critically Endangered list.


A recent survey conducted by scientists showed that only about 404 lions remain in West Africa and the numbers are still declining. The survey also found that the lions have lost almost 99 per cent of their former range in West Africa.

A rapid decline has also been recorded in East Africa — a stronghold for lions — mainly due to human-lion conflict and prey decline.

Currently, Tanzania has the highest lion population estimated at more than 12,000 while Kenya has about 2,000. However, it is the sharp decline in numbers in the two countries that is worrying conservationists.

“If the situation witnessed in West Africa is replicated in East Africa then we are doomed. This is because East Africa is one of the few remaining strongholds for lions in the world,” said James Kiyangah, who works with communities in promoting eco-tourism in Kenya.

The loss of lions has a negative effect on Africa’s fragile ecosystems. Lions play an important role in the food chain, helping to regulate numbers of the more dominant herbivore species such as zebra and buffalo. 

Without lions to control them, these species out-compete other animals, causing their extinction and reducing biodiversity. The big cats play an important ecological role as dominant predators.

READ: Fast decline in large herbivores, carnivores causes alarm

“The cats’ role is important in the predator-prey equilibrium of the terrestrial ecosystem, which is normally dependent upon both ‘bottom-up’ (food resources) and ‘top-down’ (predation, parasites and disease) processes,” said Mr Kiyangah.

However, the efforts to increase lion numbers in Africa face a major challenge, given the fact that the large herbivores are also declining sharply on the continent.

“The trade in bones and other body parts for traditional medicine, both within the region and in Asia, has been identified as a new emerging threat to the species,” said IUCN.

Mr Kiyangah said the decline in lion numbers in East Africa does not augur well not only for Africa but the world in general.

“The decline in lion numbers in East Africa is worrying because it is one of the few remaining habitats in the world where the big cats still roam in the wild,” he said.

The IUCN estimates there are 20,000-30,000 African lions left, down from approximately 75,000 in 1980. Currently, the remaining African lions are concentrated in 10 regions of East and Southern Africa.

Apart from its ecological equilibrium role, the African lion is one of the continents major tourist attractions along with the elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard.

Thousands of tourists visit East and Southern African countries every year to see the Big Five in the wild. As a result, wildlife safaris have become a major source of foreign exchange for the continent.

Like the African lion, the population of the African golden cat has also declined sharply in the recent past and it has been moved up the IUCN list from Near Threatened to Vulnerable.

The African golden cat is a forest-dependent animal inhabiting parts of equatorial Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Congo, Liberia ) where high deforestation and bushmeat hunting levels are causing substantial reduction in their area of occupancy.

“We believe that the cumulative loss of the African golden cat from deforestation and bushmeat hunting along expanding road networks amounts to greater than 30 per cent in the past 15 years,” said IUCN.

In fact, in the area of suitable habitat in Equatorial Guinea, just 16 per cent was found to be occupied by African golden cats due to human occupation.

READ: Australia bans imports, exports in trophies from African lion


Outside the continent, two species of crab, Karstama balicum and Karstama emdi, have been listed as critically endangered as their only known habitat — Bali’s Giri Putri Cave — is threatened by increasing tourism and religious ceremonies carried out in the cave.

However, there are also success stories, with the revival of the Iberian Lynx population, from 52 mature individuals in 2002 to 156 in 2012, following six decades of decline. As a result of the conservation efforts, the species has now moved from the Critically Endangered to Endangered category on the latest IUCN Red List.

This, the organisation said, was achieved through intensive conservation action including the restoration of rabbit populations — the main prey species of the Iberian Lynx — monitoring for illegal trapping, conservation breeding, reintroduction programmes and compensation schemes for landowners, which made their properties compatible with the habitat requirements of the Iberian Lynx. The species can be found in two regions of southwestern Spain as well as southeastern Portugal, which hosts its small reintroduced population.

“This IUCN Red List update confirms that effective conservation can yield outstanding results. Saving the Iberian Lynx from the brink of extinction while securing the livelihoods of local communities is a perfect example,” said Inger Andersen, IUCN director-general.

Ms Andersen said the Red List update is also a wake-up call, reminding humanity that the natural world is becoming increasingly vulnerable, adding that the international community must urgently step up conservation efforts “if we want to secure this fascinating diversity of life that sustains, inspires and amazes us every day.”
Another success story is that of the Guadalupe Fur Seal, which was twice thought to be extinct due to hunting in the late 1800s and 1920s, but has now improved in status.
The mammal has moved from the Near Threatened category to Least Concern thanks to habitat protection and the enforcement of laws such as the USA Marine Mammal Protection Act.

As a result of the intensive conservation efforts, the species’ population rebounded from about 200 to 500 individuals in the 1950s to around 20,000 in 2010. The species was almost driven to extinction by hunters who exploited its dense, luxurious underfur.

IUCN said while no new species have been listed as extinct, 14 species have been assessed as Critically Endangered (possibly extinct).

These include the evergreen Magnolia emarginata, a tree endemic to Haiti, which has suffered from an estimated 97 per cent reduction of its forest habitat in the past century and 10 species of orchid endemic to Madagascar, such as the white flowering Angraecum mahavavense, primarily due to loss of forest habitat and illegal collection.

“It is encouraging to see several species improve in status due to conservation action. However, this update shows that we are still seeing devastating losses in species populations,” said Jane Smart, director of IUCN’s Global Species Programme.

Ms Smart urged the world’s nations to take the IUCN Red List seriously describing it as the voice of biodiversity telling the world where the focus of attention should be.