Africa’s national parks are meant to protect lions, elephants, and other wildlife from human hunters. Pachyderms tend to play it safe, generally staying within park boundaries. A new study suggests lions in West Africa are not so cautious. Instead, the big cats are just as likely to hang out in nearby hunting concessions, where trophy hunting is allowed.
West African lions, which are smaller and genetically distinct from other lions, are critically endangered. The biggest concentration left—about 350—is in a UNESCO heritage site that includes five national parks and 14 hunting concessions at the intersection of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Benin.
To figure out where in this vast area the lions were spending most of their time, conservation ecologists deployed 238 camera traps in three of the parks and 11 of the concessions, across a total area of almost 13,000 square kilometers. Over three dry seasons, the motion-activated cameras snapped 1.7 million pictures, which included 96 lion sightings.
To interpret the camera data, the researchers built a computer model that incorporated a multitude of factors, including weather, vegetation cover, land and wildlife management practices, and the presence of nearby human settlements and fires. They also included information about the location of the lions’ likely prey, based on camera trap images of warthogs, bushbucks, and antelopes.
The researchers had expected to see more lions in the national parks, as with elephants. Instead, the analysis revealed the lions seem to go where prey is most plentiful—often in hunting concessions—the researchers reported last month in the Journal of Applied Ecology. They reason that with revenues from trophy hunting, concessions can better afford the irrigation and solar-powered pumps to provide more consistent water supplies, which tend to attract species that lions hunt. They can also hire guards to protect their borders from poaching or encroaching livestock. And, the researchers note, because hunting concessions often abut national parks, lions living across the rest of the continent may also be failing to take advantage of national parks as refuges.