West African lion (Panthera leo senegalensis) is native to western Africa. A new genetic study indicates, that the Western and Central African lions form a different clade of lions and are possibly more related to Asiatic lions than to lions from southern or eastern Africa. The genetic uniqueness is of particular interest, since lions are regionally endangered in western Africa.
Five types of lions
Mitochondrial dissimilarity in living African lions seemed to be modest according to some genomic studies and therefore all sub-Saharan lions occasionally have been considered a single subspecies. Another study arrived at a conclusion, that there are five major types — North African-Asian, West African, Eastern Sahel, Eastern-Southern African and the Southwestern African. This conclusion supports the status of the Western African lion as a legitimate subspecies.
A recent study further established the exclusivity of the West African lion and showed, that lions from central and western Africa (including eastern Sahel) vary genetically from lions of southern or eastern Africa. According to the study, West African lions are even more directly related to Asian lions, than to South or East African ones. These conclusions might be explained by a late Pleistocene extinction event of lions in western and central Africa about 20.000 years ago and a later recolonisation of these parts, coming from Asia.
Lions from central and western Africa are thought to be smaller than those from the southern parts of the continent. It is also suggested that they live in smaller groups, have smaller manes, and they may also differ in the shape of their skull. In the Pendjari National Park area, which is within the range of the West African lion, almost all males are either without manes or have very weak manes.
Distribution and population status
West African lion is found in western Africa, south of Sahara from Senegal in the west to the Central African Republic in the east. Another subspecies (P.l. azandica) is traditionally described from north-eastern DRK (Democratic Republic of Congo), a country located in Central Africa. It is the second largest nation in Africa by area and the eleventh largest in the world. Lions are uncommon in western Africa and may be critically endangered in this region. They are comparatively rare in captivity as well. In the year 2006 there were just 13 specimen, which are registered under the name P. l. senegalensis.
According to an estimate there are possibly only 450-1,300 lions left in West Africa. In addition, there are approximately 550-1,550 animals in Central Africa. In both the regions, the area populated by lions has been reduced to less than 15 per cent of the historic range.
The largest population of these lions inhabit the so called WAP-Complex, a large system of protected areas created mainly by W National Parks, Arli, Pendjari, and in the states Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger. The entire population in this ecosystem consists of 140 to 300 lions. Another large population of 100-400 cats is found in Bénoué ecosystem in Cameroon. Smaller populations live in various other reseves, like Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park, Guinea-Mali Protected Area in Guinea, and Waza National Park in Cameroon.
In Nigeria, there are two small populations left, one in Yankari Game Reserve, consisting of about 15 animals and the other one is in Kainji Lake National Park where there are about 24 lions. It is believed that there are no lions left in Ghana, Republic of Congo and the Côte d’Ivoire. In Democratic Republic of Congo, there are approximately 60 lions in Virunga National Park and around 100 in Garamba National Park, respectively. However, these animals are outside the range, usually described for the West African lion.
Prehistoric and/or extinct subspecies
- The American Lion (panthera leo atrox): This animal lived in great numbers from Alaska to Peru until around 10,000 years ago. Some experts were of the opinion that it was not a subspecies, but it’s own species, but the science has proved it is simply an prehistoric subspecies.
- European Cave lions: Initially there were two European Cave lions. The only difference is that they lived at different times. First one the Early European Cave lion (panthera leo fossilis) existed about 500,000 years ago and its fossils have been found only in Italy and Germany. It was bigger than the present day Asiatic and African lions, and even reached the size of the American lion, which is the largest of all subspecies ever known. Second, the European Cave Lion (panthera leo spelaea) lived in Asia and Europe till about 10,000 years ago. A small number of fossils of this subspecies have been found, but it can be commonly seen in cave paintings, where it has been depicted with large ears, tufted tails, and perhaps even faint tiger-like stripes.
- The East Siberian lion (panthera leo vereshchagini): This subspecies was found in Canada, USA and the Russia. It was a little larger than the European Cave lion (panthera leo spelaea), but slightly smaller than the American lion (panthera leo atrox).
- The Sri Lanka Lion: Almost nothing is known about this lion as merely two teeth have been found. Due to fossilization on these teeth experts have estimated that the subspecies became extinct about 39,000 years ago. For some time it wasn’t positive if this cat was its own subspecies, but after studies and careful tests conducted on teeth it was declared a subspecies in 1939.
It’s important to know that there are other known types of lion but they have not been declared a subspecies either because they are too similar to another species or they are too different and are more likely to be an independent species.