Standing up for lions

Research is key to developing practical solutions that could yet help to save the lion in Africa. Populations are plummeting in all except four countries on the continent, and nowhere more than in west Africa where numbers have halved in just two decades.

In Benin, TBA alumna Etotépé Sogbohossou is playing a leading role, generating new information about the impact of management on the social structure of lions in her home country. Her research was carried out in the Pendjari Biosphere Reserve which includes one national park and two hunting zones.

Although Benin has the most important populations of lion and cheetah in west Africa, there are few scientists working on wildlife and a dearth of support from international organisations in the country. Etotépé’s research on the lion was the first study on a large scale of large carnivores in the region.

She says that her findings have raised interest:

“As a result, more people are getting an understanding of the lion, and similar species, such as the panthera. It has opened doors, and it is good for the lion.” 

Why should we care about large carnivores? “They are part of our rich biodiversity, but they also play an important role at the trophic level,” says Eto. “They are at the top of the food chain, so they influence all other components of the ecosystem. If they are threatened then the integrity of the whole ecosystem is also threatened.

Etotépé explains why information on regional populations of lions is important: “There are genetic differences between the lion populations in West Africa and in the East and South. If we want to conserve genetic diversity in the species as a whole, then it is important to conserve the populations in this region.”

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While human-animal conflict is not as prevalent in Benin as elsewhere, other factors are putting pressure on lion populations. “What I have been able to show is that lion populations are less frequent, and smaller, in hunting areas. It seems that trophy hunting has a negative impact on the lion populations,” she says.

Etotépé explains why: “Lions live in a strong social structure, and a reduction in numbers can have a disproportionate impact. This is because adult male lions commit infanticide, so if the head of a group is killed, his successor will kill the previous head’s offspring; if the new leader is then killed, the pattern is repeated. Hunting can mean that the population does not have time to grow.”

Going on a TBA field course in 2001 was a landmark in Eto’s conservation career: “It marked the beginning of what I call my international professional life,” she says. “In the region, there were very few opportunities for people from French-speaking countries. TBA offered one of those opportunities, so it was very important.

“It was the first time I met so many people from other African countries, and I am talking also about the lecturers. I was already interested in human-wildlife conflict, and I learnt a lot about this from the TBA teachers on the course.”

The TBA went on to support Etotépé with a grant to do an MSc in Benin. Twelve years on, she is now assistant professor in agricultural sciences and agronomy at the University of Abomey-Calavi, where she has carved out a strong track record in research, teaching and practical conservation management.

So, are these areas equally important? “Yes,” she insists. “Research supports teaching and also feeds into practical conservation. In our region, we don’t know much about the wildlife that we have. If we want to conserve our biodiversity, we have to know what we are conserving. It’s very important.”

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Eto’s work is helping to inspire others in her country. She is proud to be supervising masters students in large carnivore research, and also students working in other areas of wildlife research: “Yes, I am building the capacity of conservation scientists in my country. In the past, they were not interested in working on wildlife.” she says.

The lions of West Africa need more people like Eto who are actively raising awareness and increasing knowledge that could help to reverse current trends. “I use research to help inform local communities, and also to build their capacity and to train a new generation of conservationists. It is all linked.” she says.