The number of lions has fallen 43 percent in 20 years. A lion in Nairobi National Park in Kenya. (TONY KARUMBA/Agence france-presse/Getty Images)
As if illegal mining, logging and poaching weren’t bad enough, Africa’s national parks face another dire threat: They’re vastly underfunded.
According to an analysis of conservation funding, 90 percent of nearly 300 protected areas on the continent face funding shortfalls. Together, the deficits total at least $1 billion.
Failing to address this deficit will result in severe and ongoing declines of lions, researchers warned recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Some parks will likely disappear.
“The assumption is that parks are just fine because they’re designated as protected,” said Jennifer Miller, a senior scientist at Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group, and co-author of the study. “But in many cases, they don’t have the resources to do conservation. They’re just paper parks.”
In the new analysis, the authors used wild lions as a proxy for how Africa’s national parks are faring. Because of their place at the top of the food chain, lions are considered an umbrella species — a bellwether of an ecosystem’s health.
“If lions are doing well, everything else — with the exception of rhinos — is also doing well,” said Peter Lindsey, a director with the Wildlife Conservation Network and co-author of the paper. (Rhinos are in danger from poaching to fill the demand for rhino horn.)
The number of lions has fallen 43 percent in the past 20 years to as few as 20,000 in the wild. They occupy just 8 percent of their historic habitat.
A growing proportion of their range is found in national parks and reserves. But according to the research, most protected areas are not realizing their potential as safe havens for lions.
Over two-thirds of the state-owned parks the team surveyed hold lion populations that are less than half of what they could be, based on the prey those habitats could support, the researchers said. If properly managed, those parks could quadruple the population of wild lions in Africa.
To estimate the amount of funding needed to boost populations by at least 50 percent, the researchers relied on three financial models. Then, following a review of state wildlife and donor funding, as well as interviews with park managers and officials, the team totaled the dollars available for protected areas in the 23 countries included in their study.
They found that up to 94 percent of parks operate on budgets that are less than 20 percent of that required to perform effective conservation. Parks need to invest $145 to $300 per square kilometer, they said. On average, parks spend just $30 per square kilometer.
The total to renew Africa’s parks: $1.2 billion to $2.4 billion each year. If the funding deficits are not addressed, lions and other wildlife will likely experience catastrophic declines, the authors warn.
Protected areas that are not adequately managed inevitably succumb to poaching, illegal livestock incursions, land grabs and illegal mining and logging. People also stand to lose, Dr. Lindsey said.
Healthy ecosystems provide many benefits, from watershed protection to carbon storage. In many places in Africa, parks also contribute to job creation, economic growth and rural development through tourism — a $34 billion industry on the continent, the majority of which is tied to wildlife.
South Africa and Kenya invest more heavily than most other countries in protected areas, and relatively few of their parks face deficits. Other nations, such as Mozambique, have many lions and stunning landscapes, but their tourism industries are underdeveloped.
The shortfall could be remedied if developed nations and agencies such as the World Bank stepped up their conservation commitments, Dr. Lindsey said. Africa receives about $51 billion in annual development aid. Reallocating 2 percent of those funds to conservation, the study says, could stem much of the impending crisis.
“We have reached a fork in the road,” Dr. Lindsey said. “It is time for the world to decide if Africa’s iconic parks and reserves are worth fighting for.”