West African lion

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West African lion
West African male lion.jpg
Male lion in Pendjari National Park, Benin
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Suborder: Feliformia
Family: Felidae
Subfamily: Pantherinae
Genus: Panthera
Species: P. leo
Subspecies: P. l. leo
Trinomial name
Panthera leo leo
(Linnaeus, 1758)
72275737 africa lions 624 v6.gif
Lions now roam in just 1.1% of their historic range in West Africa.


  • P. l. senegalensis (Meyer, 1829)
  • P. l. gambianus (Gray, 1843)
  • P. l. kamptzi (Matschie, 1900)

The West African lion (Panthera leo leo)[3] is a lion population in West Africa that is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. This population is isolated and comprises fewer than 250 mature individuals.[1] Already in 2004, the lion populations in West and Central Africa were fragmented and estimated as comprising at most 1,800 individuals.[4]

It was formerly considered a lion subspecies under the name P. l. senegalensis.[2] Results of phylogenetic research indicates that the West African lion population forms a distinct clade with Central African, North African and Asian lion populations beeing closely related. In 2017, the lion populations in North, West and Central Africa and Asia were subsumed under P. l. leo.[3]

Taxonomic history[edit]

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, several lion type specimens from West African countries formed the basis for descriptions of putative subspecies:[5][6]

In 1974, all these type specimen were considered synonymous with Panthera leo senegalensis.[5][2]

In 2017, the lion populations in North, West and Central Africa and Asia were subsumed under P. l. leo.[3]

Genetic research[edit]

Range map including proposed lion clades and subspecies according to genetic research

In a comprehensive study about the evolution of lions, 357 samples of 11 lion populations were examined, including some hybrid lions. The hybrids had descended from lions captured in Angola and Zimbabwe, and apparently West or Central Africa. Results indicated that four lions from Morocco did not exhibit any unique genetic characteristics and shared mitochondrial haplotypes H5 and H6 with lions from West Africa, and together with them were part of a major mtDNA grouping (lineage III) that also included Asiatic samples. This scenario was well in line with theories on lion evolution: lineage III developed in East Africa and traveled north and west in the first wave of lion expansions about 118,000 years ago. It apparently broke up into haplotypes H5 and H6 within Africa, and then into H7 and H8 in West Asia.[7]

Results of genetic analyses indicate that lions in West Africa and northern parts of Central Africa form different lion clades, which are more closely related to North African and Asiatic lions than to lions in Southern Africa and southern parts of East Africa. The Eastern border of the West African lion is situated in Nigeria and follows the lower Niger river.[8][9]


An illustration to describe the life of animals in general, featuring Leo senegalensis and an ungulate, by Alfred Brehm, 1872

The lion's fur varies in colour from light buff to dark brown. It has rounded ears and a black tail tuft. Average head-to-body length of male lions is 2.47–2.84 m (8.1–9.3 ft) with a weight of 148.2–190.9 kg (327–421 lb). Females are smaller and less heavy.[10]

A few lion specimens from West Africa obtained by museums have been described as having shorter manes than lions from other African regions.[5] In general, the West African lion is similar in general appearance and size as lions in other parts of Africa and Asia.[6]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The West African lion is distributed south of the Sahara from Senegal in the west to Nigeria in the east. The population in West Africa has lost 99% of its former range.[11] It is regionally extinct in Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Togo, and possibly extinct in Guinea.[1]

In the 1950s, lions used to still be present in savanna woodlands in southern parts of Mauritania, namely in the Néma, northern Tagant, Brakna, Hodh El Gharbi and Trarza Regions, and along the Karakoro and Senegal Rivers. In the country's Guidimaka Region, lions survived until the late 1980s.[12]

Lions were recorded by camera traps in the North Province, Cameroon during a survey carried out between January 2008 and May 2010.[13]

In 2015, an adult male lion and a female lion were sighted in Ghana's Mole National Park. These were the first sightings of lions in the country in 39 years.[14]

Population status[edit]

Surveys carried out between 2006 and 2012 revealed that the West African lion population declined to a few hundred individuals in fragmented populations between Senegal and Nigeria.[1] The largest West African lion subpopulation of between 246 and 466 individuals survives in the WAP-Complex, a large system of protected areas formed mainly by W, Arli, and Pendjari National Parks in Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger. The other subpopulations consist of only a few individuals in Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal and in two sites in Nigeria, one in Kainji Lake National Park and the other in Yankari Game Reserve. The population at Kainji Lake might be connected to that of the WAP-Complex. These small subpopulations are probably declining.[11][15]

Range countries Area used in km2 Estimated no. of individuals
Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal; Guinea 90,384 >50[16]
Benin (except Pendjari National Park) 3,152; 1,742; 4,171 3; 18; 19[16]
Kainji Lake in Nigeria 4,171 23–63[16]
WAP complex in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger 29,403 246–466[11]
Total 133,023 359–619


The West African lion population is threatened by poaching and illegal trade of body parts. Lion body parts from Benin are smuggled to Niger, Nigeria, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea, and from Burkina Faso to Benin, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea.[17]


Two captive cubs at the Olusegun Obasanjo Library, Nigeria

In 2006, a Lion Conservation Strategy for West and Central Africa was developed in cooperation between IUCN regional offices and several wildlife conservation organisations. The strategy envisages to maintain sufficient habitat, ensure a sufficient wild prey base, make lion-human coexistence sustainable and reduce factors that lead to further fragmentation of populations.[18]

In captivity[edit]

In 2006, there were 13 captive lions registered under the name P. l. senegalensis.[19]

Cultural significance[edit]

Coat of arms of Sierra Leone

The title "Lion of Mali" was given to Marijata of the Mali Empire.[20][21]


  1. ^ a b c d Henschel, P.; Bauer, H.; Sogbohoussou, E. & Nowell, K. (2015). "Panthera leo (West Africa subpopulation)". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. International Union for Conservation of Nature. 
  2. ^ a b c Wozencraft, W.C. (2005). "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M. Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 542. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. 
  3. ^ a b c Kitchener, A. C., Breitenmoser-Würsten, C., Eizirik, E., Gentry, A., Werdelin, L., Wilting A., Yamaguchi, N., Abramov, A. V., Christiansen, P., Driscoll, C., Duckworth, J. W., Johnson, W., Luo, S.-J., Meijaard, E., O’Donoghue, P., Sanderson, J., Seymour, K., Bruford, M., Groves, C., Hoffmann, M., Nowell, K., Timmons, Z. & Tobe, S. (2017). "A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group" (PDF). Cat News. Special Issue 11. 
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  5. ^ a b c Hemmer, H. (1974). "Untersuchungen zur Stammesgeschichte der Pantherkatzen (Pantherinae) Teil 3. Zur Artgeschichte des Löwen Panthera (Panthera) leo (Linnaeus, 1758)". Veröffentlichungen der Zoologischen Staatssammlung. 17: 167–280. 
  6. ^ a b Haas, S.K.; Hayssen, V.; Krausman, P.R. (2005). "Panthera leo" (PDF). Mammalian Species. 762: 1–11. doi:10.1644/1545-1410(2005)762[0001:PL]2.0.CO;2. 
  7. ^ Antunes, A.; Troyer, J. L.; Roelke, M. E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Packer, C.; Winterbach, C.; Winterbach, H.; Johnson, W. E. (2008). "The Evolutionary Dynamics of the Lion Panthera leo Revealed by Host and Viral Population Genomics". PLoS Genetics. 4 (11): e1000251. doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1000251. PMC 2572142Freely accessible. PMID 18989457. 
  8. ^ Bertola, L. D.; Van Hooft, W. F.; Vrieling, K.; Uit De Weerd, D. R.; York, D. S.; Bauer, H.; Prins, H. H. T.; Funston, P. J.; Udo De Haes, H. A.; Leirs, H.; Van Haeringen, W. A.; Sogbohossou, E.; Tumenta, P. N.; De Iongh, H. H. (2011). "Genetic diversity, evolutionary history and implications for conservation of the lion (Panthera leo) in West and Central Africa" (PDF). Journal of Biogeography. 38 (7): 1356–1367. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2011.02500.x. 
  9. ^ Bertola, L.D.; Jongbloed, H.; Van Der Gaag, K.J.; De Knijff, P.; Yamaguchi, N.; Hooghiemstra, H.; Bauer, H.; Henschel, P.; White, P.A.; Driscoll, C.A. & Tende, T. (2016). "Phylogeographic patterns in Africa and High Resolution Delineation of genetic clades in the Lion (Panthera leo)". Scientific Reports. 6: 30807. doi:10.1038/srep30807. 
  10. ^ Guggisberg, C. A. W. (1975). "Lion Panthera leo (Linnaeus, 1758)". Wild Cats of the World. New York: Taplinger Publishing. pp. 138–179. ISBN 0-8008-8324-1. 
  11. ^ a b c Henschel, P.; Coad, L.; Burton, C.; Chataigner, B.; Dunn, A.; MacDonald, D.; Saidu, Y.; Hunter, L. T. B. (2014). Hayward, M., ed. "The Lion in West Africa is Critically Endangered". PLoS ONE. 9 (1): e83500. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083500. PMC 3885426Freely accessible. PMID 24421889. 
  12. ^ Chardonnet, P. (2002). "Chapter II: Population Survey". Conservation of the African Lion : Contribution to a Status Survey. Paris: International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife, France & Conservation Force, USA. pp. 21–101. 
  13. ^ de Iongh, H.H., Croes, B., Rasmussen, G., Buij, R. and Funston, P. (2011). "The status of cheetah and African wild dog in the Benoue Ecosystem, North Cameroon" (PDF). Cat News. 55: 29−31. 
  14. ^ Angelici, F.M. and Rossi, L. (2017). "Further lion, Panthera leo senegalensis Meyer, 1826, sightings in Mole National Park, Ghana, and possible first serval Leptailurus serval Schreber, 1776 record after 39 years (Mammalia Felidae)" (PDF). Biodiversity Journal. 8 (2): 749−752. 
  15. ^ Henschel, P.; Azani, D.; Burton, C.; Malanda, G.; Saidu, Y.; Sam, M.; Hunter, L. (2010). "Lion status updates from five range countries in West and Central Africa" (PDF). Cat News. 52: 34–39. 
  16. ^ a b c Riggio, J., Jacobson, A., Dollar, L., Bauer, H., Becker, M., Dickman, A., Funston, P., Groom, R., Henschel, P., de Iongh, H., Lichtenfeld, L., Pimm, S. (2012). "The size of savannah Africa: a lion's (Panthera leo) view". Biodiversity Conservation. 22 (1): 17–35. doi:10.1007/s10531-012-0381-4/fulltext.html (inactive 2018-03-11). 
  17. ^ Williams, V.L., Loveridge, A.J., Newton, D.J. and Macdonald, D.W. (2017). "Questionnaire survey of the pan-African trade in lion body parts". PLOS One. 12 (10): e0187060. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0187060. PMC 5658145Freely accessible. PMID 29073202. 
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  20. ^ Lynch, P. A. (2004). African Mythology A to Z. Infobase Publishing. p. 63. ISBN 0-8160-4892-4. 
  21. ^ Hogarth, C.; Butler, N. (2004). "Animal Symbolism (Africa)". In Walter, M. N. Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, Volume 1. pp. 3–6. ISBN 1-57607-645-8. 

External links[edit]