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Searching for the last lions in Nigeria

21 March 2016, 18:03

Lagos - Under a starless night sky in the Yankari game reserve, Martial Kiki stands on the back of a battered pick-up truck searching for the last lions in Nigeria.

From the truck, its sides torn to pieces by branches, the 31-year-old researcher from Benin plays the tormented sound of a distressed buffalo calf over a megaphone.

In theory, the lions are supposed to hear the buffalo and come for an easy meal. Then Kiki would shine a floodlight on the hungry, nocturnal cats and count them for a population estimate.

Mangy scavengers

But despite broadcasting 29 hours of calls and trekking 150km through the game reserve looking for tracks, Kiki hasn't seen one lion yet. Not even a paw print.

"I expected to see more than this," said Kiki in the heart of the reserve, an expanse of savannah the size of Luxembourg in Nigeria's northeast, dubbed the country's "richest wildlife oasis".

"The situation has become worse. There has been no response, no tracks," he said, inadvertently likening the situation to one of the darkest scenes from Disney's "The Lion King", when the protagonist's pride is overrun by a pack of mangy scavengers.

"In five, 10 years, lions can disappear completely from Nigeria," said Kiki.

"Now everywhere we're going there are hyena prints."

There are only two areas in Nigeria home to lions: Kainji Lake national park, in the northwest, where about 30 cats are living and Yankari, where researchers believe there are just under five.

Situation urgent

The numbers for West Africa are equally dire, with just 400 lions remaining in the region, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature out of a total population of 20 000 lions living in the wild around the world.

"When we started our first comprehensive West Africa lion survey in 2009, lions had already lost 99% of their West African range," said Philipp Henschel, a survey co-ordinator at the lion conservation organisation Panthera.

There is no simple solution to saving the West African lions, whose males have shorter manes than their southern counterparts and in December were listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

With chronic mismanagement in the past and underfunding, Yankari is struggling to attract the funds it needs to preserve its last lions.

Fences need to be built

Parks famous for their lions, including Tanzania's Serengeti Park and SA's Kruger National Park, run on a budget of approximately $500 per square kilometre.

In contrast, most West African parks with lions operate on a budget of just $36 per square kilometre.

"Yankari is one of the few areas where fencing makes sense because the situation is so urgent," said Henschel, speaking from Libreville.

To protect the animals and allow rangers to patrol more efficiently, fences need to be built around the perimeter of the park, he added.

"We know how to conserve cats," he said. "We just need money to do it."



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