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.

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.

One of these things is not like the other ones

Addis Ababa LionImage via Scientific American

Addis Ababa Lion
Image via Scientific American

It’s a strange fact that most creatures seem to know, either by instinct, habit or reasoning, that regular inbreeding does not make for a strong population. Given availability and opportunity, populations will find a way to mix genetic lines and thus keep their species healthy and adaptable. Where this is not possible, a species might still survive, but will be much vulnerable to disease and changes in habitat or food supply.

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are a good example: due to climate changes over 10,000 years ago, the cheetah population was severely diminished. The existing species (the only extant survivors of the Acinonyx genus, which used to roam Europe as well as Africa and Asia) is well adapted to its environment, but with all members sharing 99% of their genes, a single fatal virus could wipe out any exposed individuals instead of just the susceptible ones.

So what to say about the 16 lions found in the decrepit Addis Ababa animal park. They are the descendants of seven forest-dwelling lions collected at the zoo’s founding in 1948 by the emperor of Ethiopia. There is a long, sad backstory to the zoo’s abysmal conditions, the lack of funding, the careful avoidance of inbreeding only to have cubs die due to lack of proper care. The mayor of Addis Ababa reached out to sister city’s officials in Leipzig, Germany for help, and received it the form of Leipzig Zoo veterinarians. The lions were identified as being genetically unique, which is to say they have several unique traits while still belonging to the species Panthera leo.

There are few wild lions left in Ethiopia, and all lions are considered endangered. Conservation efforts are underway for the Addis Ababa lions, both in terms of living conditions and possible further breeding.

These pitiable creatures have spent their lives in tiny concrete and steel cells, fed a spare diet more suited to house cats, their bodies sold to taxidermists to raise money for the zoo. Awful. And yet – would this genetically specific group have survived in any fashion in the wild during the decades when all their tens of thousands of relatives were wiped out? Kept in a concrete bell jar, this tiny population has limped along, a hidden treasure of genetic information that can now be (hopefully) rescued for the overall genetic diversity of lions as a whole. Most likely all those lions will be captive as well.

I keep thinking there must be a silver lining here somewhere, I just can’t seem to define its outlines.

Scientific American

European Journal of Wildlife Research – A genetically distinct lion (Panthera leo) population from Ethiopia, S. Bruche, M. Gusset, S. Lippold, R. Barnett, K. Eulenberger, J. Junhold, C. A. Driscoll, M. Hofreiter
University of York article