The lion’s share: West African lions need larger habitat areas and greater protection

Environment | Grasslands

By Sophie Coxon, Kingfisher Writer

Published December 17th, 2022

The African savannah lion is a well-known and iconic symbol of the grasslands of Africa. However, the Panthera leo leo, a subspecies present in the west of the continent receives much less attention. With less than 500 individuals remaining, the West African lion is on the brink of dying out.

A mirage of stooped, thorny trees shimmers in the rising heat as a herd of roan antelope graze under the baking sun. A hornbill watches from the branches of an acacia as the sound of insects fills the warm air.

A lion in Pendjari park, Benin. | Micho2020 / Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly, an alarm cry renders the grassland silent; the antelope scatter and the birds lift from the baked ground. A shadow of gold prowls through the tallgrass, each step placed with delicate intention, tail swishing—a lioness, the queen of the savannah. Despite her power, intelligence, and wit, her reign may be short-lived.

The West African lion has been named as a sub-species of the more commonly known African savannah lion, roaming through the western countries of Senegal, Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, whilst its close relatives are found in the plains of southern and eastern Africa.

Compared to the savannah lion, west African lions are slightly taller in stature with a more muscular build. However, whilst dominant males sport smaller greyish manes, they lack the large iconic mane of the savannah lion, making them alike to the Asiatic lions of India. It is estimated that over 40,000 individuals once populated the plains of western Africa, a stark contrast to the estimated 400 alive today.

The lion is intertwined with Senegalese culture and folklore, representing boldness and strength, being the symbol of the country, featuring in the national anthem and lending its name to the country’s football team. Despite representing their great symbolic importance to the nation, lion populations continue to dwindle.

‘40,000 west african lions once roamed the wild. Only 400 are alive today.’

There are many reasons for the decline of the west African lion, the most prominent being illegal poaching of the lion’s main prey, antelope, wildebeest and buffalo. The lions themselves are also poached, with body parts such as paws, teeth, claws, pelts and even meat trafficked at high prices, particularly for use in traditional medicine.

The natural habitat range of these lions has been continually damaged, degraded and developed, to the point that it now covers only 1% of its former area. Gold mining, agriculture and wildfires are the major causes of habitat loss, confining the last remaining survivors of the species to a few small regions, such as Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal.

Pendjari National Park, Benin. | Carsten ten Brink / Flickr

Very rough estimates put the number of lions residing in the park at around 30 individuals. However, their elusive nature and low population number make individuals extremely hard to count or even spot; most rangers at Niokolo-Koba have never seen a lion.

The northern areas and perimeter of the park have been ravaged by fires, and intense poaching has left the landscape a desolate, dusty environment. The natural vegetation of long swathes of grasses, thorny acacia, tangled vines and low shrubs is gone, creating an empty plain, lacking the cover needed to conceal big cats as they stalk their prey.

In addition, the limited vegetation has driven grazing herbivores to move to other regions. This leads to a collapse in the ecosystem and destroys the complex food web, leaving lions and many other species starving, with no choice but to leave.

‘With huge prey declines, lions must either starve, or leave.’

In the centre of the park, however, rangers have been working to restore the natural environment, patrolling for poachers and protecting wildlife. Here, their positive impact is already visible; thick undergrowth and brush cover the land, with an abundance of antelope, primates and warthogs trundling through the bush.

This is how the entire park should be, and perhaps even beyond its borders, if the west African lion populations are to be saved. Large predators need large territories, and currently, there is not enough suitable habitat available.

The remaining lion prides have been forced to find new territories closer to human developments, preying on goats and cattle as their natural prey numbers decline. Many lions are shot or poisoned each year in retaliation by locals, as many are subsistence farmers who cannot risk losing members of their livestock herds.

‘Large predators need large territories, and currently, there is not enough suitable habitat available.’

Alongside poaching, lions are also killed by trophy hunters from abroad and accidental capture in snares set for other wildlife. This calls for an improvement in national park management, monitoring and research into the lives of west Africa’s lion prides to prevent their extinction.

In Niokolo-Koba, the Panthera project is using GPS collars to track lions and find out where they hunt, rest and breed, to crucially prevent poaching. But it is not an easy task; a suitable adult lion must be found, sedated, and fitted with a collar, which is expensive and time-consuming. Younger lions are not fitted with collars as they will outgrow them too quickly. So far, only a handful of males and one adult female have been collared.

The Panthera project is providing rangers with the skills, equipment and funding needed to protect lions and other endangered species in the park. To date, three anti-poaching ranger teams have been formed, meaning they are halfway to achieving their goal of six teams, enough to be able to monitor the whole park.

Lion prints in Pendjari National Park, Benin. | Ji-Elle / Wikimedia Commons

Being a ranger here is not easy; alongside the hardships of working in the tough and unforgiving landscape that is the African grassland, rangers risk their lives daily, with many being shot at, injured, tortured and even murdered by poachers. Nevertheless, Senegal’s rangers are passionately dedicated to their country and natural heritage, refusing to let another species fall into local extinction.

Unfortunately, poaching is often a means taken to secure a livelihood for many people and families. Thus, structural support and alternative economic opportunities must be put into place in order to provide security to those who turn to illegal poaching out of necessity, rather than desire.

However, there is another spark of hope for west Africa’s lions. Ecotourism is on the rise, and a new eco-lodge in the park is attracting tourists from abroad, bringing vital revenue to Niokolo-Koba that can boost vital conservation efforts and offer more job opportunities within the park itself.

This recovery will of course take time, resources, and human collaboration. However, such efforts offer an achievable win-win for both locals and wildlife, and if the right action is taken now, the future of the West African lion may be salvageable.

Featured Image: Siloepic | Wikimedia Commons

Henschel P., Coad L., Burton C., Chataigner B., Dunn, A., et al. (2014) The Lion in West Africa Is Critically Endangered. PLoS ONE. Volume 9, Issue 1, Page e83500.

Howard B. (2014) ‘Lions Approach Extinction in West Africa.’ Animals. Available at: [Accessed August 22nd, 2022].

Kutner, J. (2014) ‘Senegal's Lions Are Almost Gone, But There Are Ways To Change That.’ Daily Dodo. Available at: [Accessed August 22nd, 2022].

Lion Recovery Fund (2022) ‘Saving Senegal's last lion.’ Lion Recovery Fund. Available at: [Accessed August 22nd, 2022].

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