It was alarming to read new research which suggests that the West African Lion may be on the verge of extinction, with just 645 members of the sub-species left in western and central Africa.

The study, carried out by conservation group LionAid, finds there are no lions at all in 25 of the region's countries, and the animal is virtually extinct in 10 others. In Nigeria, once home to a huge community of West African Lions, just 34 remain.

In total, the researchers believe no more than 15,000 wild lions remain across the whole of Africa.

African Lions

A study in 2004 estimated that up to 850 West African Lions remained in the wild. If LionAid's new figures are correct, about a quarter of the population has been wiped out in less than a decade.

Analysis by Duke University used satellite imaging to confirm nearly 75 percent of Africa's savannah has been destroyed for lion and wildlife populations, having been converted into farmlands or otherwise encroached on by humanity.

The study suggested that there are now just 67 "lion areas" left, and only 10 of these are, in any sense, stable.

The Duke researchers offered a more optimistic estimation of the lion's survival in Africa, suggesting the population numbers 32,000. However 6,000 of these are believed to be living in areas with a very high risk of local extinction, automatically reducing the estimate by about 19 percent.

Lions and Conservation

The overall picture suggests the inexorable decrease in lion population has been accelerated by a catastrophic rate of habitat loss and increasing human population. Evidence suggests the lion is a growing part of the illegal trade of wild animals and wild animal parts, and this could seal the species' extinction unless immediate action is taken.

Global Financial Integrity's (GFI's) 2011 report on transnational crime in the developing world estimates the total value of the illegal animal trade market at $10bn (approximately £6.2bn). The primary recipients of illegally traded animal parts are the Chinese (who use them in traditional medicine), as well as Americans and countries in the European Union.

Born Free USA, an animal advocacy nonprofit organisation, believes the United States is the largest importer of African lion parts and specifically lion hunting trophies. Speaking to IBTimes UK, Adam Roberts, the executive vice president and co-founder of Born Free, stressed the need to increase protection for the African lion.

A Zambian Lion

Lions and CITES

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments to ensure ill-advised and ruthless international trade in wild animals and plants does not lead to their extinction.

As part of its protective cover, CITES groups the traffic of animals and plants into three categories - Appendix I, Appendix II and Appendix III - with the first denoting the highest category of protection.

The African lion, Panthera leo, is listed in Appendix II, despite the evidence and the consensus of conservationists across the world, who believe pre-emptive action, taken now by uplisting the African lion to Appendix I, could make saving the species a much easier proposition.

A listing in Appendix I will not, unfortunately, eliminate all legal trade in lions. It will only serve to increase the regulations surrounding such trade.

"Trade will be more strictly controlled. In order to engage in trade of a species in Appendix I, there would have to be an export permit from the country of origin but also an import permit from the destination nation. That is different from an Appendix II listing that only requires an export permit. A nation could refuse an import permit for lion trophies from west Africa if they know trade in lion trophies from that region is detrimental to species population," Roberts explains.

It isn't just trade to the US that is the problem. In an email exchange with IBTimes UK, TRAFFIC, an organisation that monitors wildlife trade, confirms an increase in trade of lion parts, which they believe are being pushed as a substitute for goods such as tiger bones.

All species of tiger are now listed in Appendix I, making illegal trade in them harder. That possibly is why lions are now being targeted. However, a lack of any in-depth study in this space makes policy work difficult.

Trends

In addition to the trade of lion parts for Chinese medicine, as a substitute for tiger parts, research undertaken in Nigeria's Yankari Game Reserve also suggested lions are being used in traditional African medicine - lion skins are used for back and joint pain, lion skin and lungs for the treatment of whooping cough, and lion veins for erectile dysfunction.

There is also the problem of quotas within CITES regulations. The agreement between participatory nations for legal trade in endangered species limits the transportation of such species to pre-set numbers. In 2011, for example, no more than 10 lions captured in the wild could be legally exported from Ethiopia.

On the face of it, this sounds a good solution to try and limit pressure on wild populations. However, the increase in quotas in recent years is a bad sign. According to information on the CITES Web site, in recent years only Ethiopia has allowed export. In 2012 however, Mozambique suddenly allowed the export of 50 lions captured in the wild per year.

West African Lions

And Roberts reveals an even more shocking new consumer fad - lion burgers. In an investigative study in 2010, Born Free revealed a "proliferation of lion meat advertised on menus in upscale restaurants and burger shops".

Captive Breeding

Roberts also spoke against the possibility of captive breeding; the idea lions be bred like chickens or cattle, as they are in South Africa, for hunting and slaughter.

"The reason is two-fold. First, there is not an illegal trade in chicken meat or cow meat, the way there is in lion parts. And once you open legal trade in lion parts there is going to be illegal trade or laundering. This is not acceptable.

"Secondly, if you look at the history... where animals have been bred, presumably to reduce pressure on wild populations, it has failed miserably. Chinese tiger farms have not stopped the poaching in India. And the same goes for Asiatic black bears.

"The farming for bears started in Korea in the 1980s and spread to China, to provide Asian markets with bear gall bladders and bear bile. However, the wild population continues to be attacked, either to fill demand or re-stock farms." 

Lions and the Endgame

The lion, African or Asian, is an important part of mankind's culture, whether or not we choose to believe that fact.

The lion's existence is interwoven into the very fabric of African folklore and daily life and the iconic images of a lion stalking the savannah, the rasping echo of its roar and the bloodcurdling chill of the animal in full flight are sights and sounds that are, in every sense of the word, irreplaceable.

A Jurassic Park-style reincarnation is not a solution. There can be no second chance. We cannot bring the lion back to life after having hunted and butchered every last animal. These are the days that will decide if the lion lives or dies.