Lions are plentiful in East Africa, where they are a staple of the tourist trade. But populations in the western and central portions of the continent are sparse, fragmented and threatened by human encroachments as well as poaching for traditional medicine products, according to a commission set up by the World Conservation Union.
The report, newly available on the Web, concludes that no lion population in West or Central Africa is big enough to avoid inbreeding. The largest groups, in Cameroon and along the borders of Senegal, Guinea, and Mali, have just about 200 animals each. There are tiny pockets of lions elsewhere, some with no more than 10 animals. The whole region probably contains no more than 2000, says Hans Bauer of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, a member of the African Lion Working Group.
Bauer says lions are especially tricky to count. "Aerial counts, roadside counts, sampling methods, dung counts: It all works very well for prey, but not for lions," he says. "The only method recognized as accurate is knowing them all individually."
The lion experts want to start a lion database, but so far there's no money for it. The World Wildlife Fund does not recognize lions as endangered, partly because until now no one has tried to put together an inventory of West African populations.