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Oct 27, 2015 11:50 AM EDT

Lions fast vanishing in West Africa

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New research published on Monday says that the count of lions, the symbol of Africa's beauty, power and freedom, is fast declining in West Africa since 1990, the Washington Post reports.

New research shows that the populations of lion show sharp declines in West and Central Africa and that both regions risk losing half their lions within the next two decades.

East Africa stands a 37 percent chance of halving its lion population over the same period, according to the survey published in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and written by researchers including Henschel.

Philipp Henschel, lion survey coordinator for the New York-based Panthera conservation group, said he saw the first lion in Nigeria in 2009.

"It came as a big surprise because Nigeria has by far the biggest human population on the continent, and the national parks are fairly small compared to others in West Africa that already have lost their lions," Henschel told The Associated Press.

"Everyone was excited, including rangers from Nigeria's National Park Service - it was the first time they had seen one too."

In 2009, there were 25 to 30 lions left in Kainji Lake National Park in west-central Nigeria and only about five in the east-central Yankari National Park.

Henschel surveyed all 21 protected areas that harbor lions in West Africa. His research, published last year, reported that lions no longer exist in 99 percent of their historic range in West Africa.

The finding by Henschel prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature to put the lions of West Africa on its Red List as critically endangered.

According to an estimate from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, lions only exist in India and Africa. In India, about 500 lions remain, while fewer than 20,000 lions remain in Africa.

In India, about 500 lions remain, all in Gujarat state, according to state officials. Fewer than 20,000 lions roam the wilds in all of Africa,

In West Africa, only 400 lions remain, according to Henschel's research, making them likely the most endangered lions on the planet.

The decline is due to peasant farmers encroaching on the lions' traditional ranges, poachers hunting for bush meat, like antelopes, that are lions' sole food source, and global warming.

 "We have to confront that reality," said Panthera president Luke Hunter. "Lions and people both evolved in Africa and co-existed for millennia, but today, one is losing the race for survival."

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