Paper Parks

Paper lion - an historic French West Africa banknote (1926)
Paper lion – an historic French West Africa banknote (1926)

A team of researchers spent six years tracking populations of West African lions (Panthera leo), a breed genetically distinct from other lions on the continent. Twenty-one parks exist for their protection, but according to a study out in PLOS ONE, lions were actually found in only four of these parks.

Lions are protected throughout Africa, with millions of dollars spent in conservation efforts – just not in West Africa. The lion population – estimated to be at under 400 individuals – has been divided, encroached upon, hunted. Habitat destruction due to farming, and the large bushmeat market that competes with the lions for prey, have done most of the harm.

Source: Henschel et al. / PLOS ONE
Source: Henschel et al. / PLOS ONE

The research team and the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) are calling for immediate investment in protection of this species, but considering that West Africa is among the poorest regions on the planet, this will be an uphill march.

Dr. Philipp Henschel, survey coordinator for Panthera, the non-profit wild cat conservation organization that sponsored the survey, led a team that examined lions across 17 countries. I heard Dr. Henschel interviewed on the BBC.

In addition to the plight of these animals, one image of his particularly struck me: He and his colleagues devoted years to the survey before ever laying on a living West African lion, symbol and emblem of West Africa. They went from park to designated park, only to find the lions had disappeared.

They had thought they would be counting lions, but they spent most of the survey counting paper parks – parks in name only, the subjects of protection already long gone.