New research published this week indicates that lion populations in Africa may be lower than current estimates suggest.

The research, a collaboration involving University of Queensland and Griffith University, published in Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution,and Ecological Solutions and Evidence, found that current lion counting methods for research/conservation purposes may be overestimating lion numbers and densities.

Lead author Alexander Braczkowski, formerly at University of Queensland, now a research associate at the Environmental Futures Research Institute, determined that only monitoring methods which directly identify individual lions provide an accurate account of lion numbers and density, the number of males to females and how far they travel.

Lead author Alexander Braczkowski, formerly at University of Queensland, now a research associate at the Environmental Futures Research Institute

“African lions are one of the world’s most loved animal species and for that reason they garner both conservation attention and funding,” Mr Braczkowski said.

“Yet some experts believe their populations have experienced a 50% decline since 1994 when, coincidentally, Disney’s The Lion King was released.

“Current calculations indicate between 20,000 and 30,000 remain in the wild, scattered across 102 populations in Africa, however, our research suggests these numbers may be substantially lower.

“Most African lion abundance and density estimates are based upon track counts, audio lure surveys and expert solicitation — which are simply not informative enough to understand how lion populations are doing over time.”

According to Mr Braczkowski, as outlined in Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution, the methods being used to calculate lion abundance and density is lagging behind those adopted for other big cats, such as tigers, leopards and jaguars.

“Only by using long-term surveys using photographic methods to identify individual lions can you accurately track changes in population size, survival, density and sex-specific movements.

“Monitoring these parameters over time provides important insights into population health, that current methods like audio surveys or track counts, can’t. For example, our study demonstrated that large home ranges and skewed sex-ratios, can signal prey depletion and imminent population collapse.

“This technique, developed in the Maasai Mara by co-authors Dr Nic Elliot and Dr Arjun Gopalaswamy, compiles data on lion identities and their location, and subsequently uses power computers to determine the changes in lion density across the landscape.”

In their second research paper, Mr Braczkowski and colleagues assessed the ability of this technique to better understand the status of lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

“This was the perfect place to use this approach since lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park spend a lot of their time up in trees, and it is relatively straightforward to get good pictures of them,” Mr Braczkowski.

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“This lion population also carries great local tourism value, with each lion estimated to raise about USD$14,000 annually.

“Queen Elizabeth National Park is an unusual site where lions, owing to their unique tree-climbing behaviour are frequently seen by managers and tourists.”

“It is alarming to note that many continent-wide figures on African lion numbers are not backed by rigorous on-ground surveys,” said Dr Duan Biggs, a co-author on the studies from Griffith University.

“Accurate site-based estimates of lion population size are crucial to assess the effectiveness of conservation interventions.”

Mr Braczkowski and colleagues found lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park were now moving more and have larger home range sizes compared to the previous study conducted about a decade ago.

“Since larger home range sizes in big cats are often associated with lower animal densities due to less available prey, this is a concerning trend,” said Dr Arjun Gopalaswamy, a co-author and science advisor to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Global Programs.

“There’s great value in using methods that keep track of lion populations directly and we urge conservation and research communities to cease using ad hoc, indirect methods and shift to more reliable and direct methods.”

“In light of the conservation threat due to the collapse in tourism in Africa it is now more urgent than ever to have accurate, reliable monitoring of lion numbers on the continent,” said Mr Braczkowski.

“It appears this is starting to happen, with the method being adopted by the Kenya Wildlife Service and partners to survey lions and other carnivores across Kenya.”