The west African lion is on the verge of extinction, according to experts after a marked decline in recent years.
It is estimated there are just 645 genetically distinct wild lions left in western and central Africa, with as few as 34 remaining in the whole of Nigeria.
Now experts from conservation group LionAid say they are ‘in real danger of extinction’.
According to the group, there are no lions left in 25 African countries and populations are barely surviving in ten.
Clusters of lions remain in Burkina Faso, Niger, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Chad but are already extinct in countries such as Ghana, The Ivory Coast and Togo.
Thirty years ago there were 200,000 lions roaming wild across the continent – but now there are only between 15,000 and 32,000 left.
West African lions have been largely forgotten due to political apathy to conservation.
Dr Pieter Kat, trustee of LionAid, told The Guardian: ‘There has been a catastrophic decline in the populations of lions in Africa, and particularly west Africa.
‘These lions have been neglected for a very long time and do not have adequate protection programs.’
He said the west of the continent is often ignored in favour of eastern Africa, leading to a decline in species.
The lion is threatened by a range of factors, including loss of habitat, loss of natural prey due to poaching, ‘unsustainable levels of trophy hunting’ and human conflict.
A new threat is also on the rise as lion bones are being used to supply the demands of Asian traditional medicine as tiger bones become more scarce.
In Nigeria a government wildlife official told The Guardian that the number of lions in the country had dropped from 44 in 2009 to a meagre 34.
Yohanna Saidu from Nigeria’s interior ministry told the newspaper they are trying to protect the lions but admitted to being ‘very concerned’.
Dr Kat said it would now be impossible to build up a population of lions in Nigeria and therefore the species should be classed as extinct there as well.
The picture is similar in other countries. In Senegal, the LionAid said there are just 40 lions left.
The charity said there are only five ‘viable’ populations – those of 1,000 or more – lions left on the continent.
Three of those are found in Tanzania and Kenya, with the remaining populations surviving in South Africa and Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Recent studies on African lion populations show that about three-quarters of Africa’s savannah has disappeared over the past 50 years.
Conservationists say it is not possible to individually count every lion in the continent so estimates on remaining population numbers vary.
However experts do agree the plight of the African lion is ‘very serious’ and want the animal to be included on the convention on international trade in endangered species list.
Inclusion would mean tight protection on hunting and trade, especially important as more than 5,600 wild African lions were hunted and exported as trophies between 1999 and 2008.
However, conservationists say they face strong opposition from the pro-hunting lobby.
Dr Kat said: ‘We are currently paying lip service to the conservation needs of a species so greatly important to our cultures, history, and indeed the health of wildlife biodiversity in Africa.
‘Lions are not only an iconic species important to very many people all over the world, but they are also a vital component of African ecosystems.’