West African lions are a critically endangered subpopulation, with an estimated 400 remaining and strong evidence of ongoing declines.

About 90% of these lions live in West Africa’s largest protected area complex, the W-Arly-Pendjari. The WAP Complex includes five national parks and 14 hunting concessions across roughly 10,200 square miles in Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin.

Given that wildlife protection is one of the main purposes of a national park, you might expect West African lions to favor life inside park boundaries, rather than within the privately managed hunting concessions that surround the parks. After all, lions tend to shun people, and human pressures are higher in hunting areas than in the parks.

But a new University of Michigan-led camera survey of West African lions—believed to be the largest wildlife camera survey ever undertaken in West Africa and the first carried out within WAP Complex national parks and hunting concessions—found that West African lions show no statistically significant preference between the parks and trophy-hunting areas.

The findings, scheduled for publication March 30 in the Journal of Applied Ecology, have implications for conservation management of the remaining West African lions.

“Our results suggest habitat quality in national parks is inadequate, leading to a lack of preference in lions despite lower human pressures,” said doctoral student Kirby Mills of U-M’s Applied Wildlife Ecology (AWE) Lab, lead author of the study.

The researchers suspect that the lure of plentiful water, high-quality habitat and abundant prey on hunting properties outweigh the lions’ natural avoidance of humans. Revenues from trophy hunting pay for enhanced infrastructure such as irrigation systems and solar-powered pumps at watering holes, as well as added patrol staff.

At the same time, under-resourced national parks struggle to deal with degraded wildlife habitat, poachers, inadequate staffing and displacement of wildlife by livestock, which are permitted within the parks.

“We recommend prioritizing the reduction of habitat degradation in the parks and increasing water availability to increase suitable habitat for lions and their prey,” said Mills, who conducted the study for her master’s thesis at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. “But at the same time, we recognize that management interventions at a large scale require economic resources unavailable to park managers in WAP, an incongruity prolific throughout the range of African lions.”

The study’s senior author is Nyeema Harris, an assistant professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the AWE Lab. Harris designed the project and led the fieldwork with an international team that included government employees and students from Burkina Faso and Niger.

Authors of the Journal of Applied Ecology study, in addition to U-M’s Mills and Harris, are Yahou Harissou and Yaye Abdel-Nasser of Parc W.-Niger in Niger, and Isaac Gnoumou and Benoit Doamba of Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Environment.

Read full Michigan News press release