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How many lions in Africa? A LionAid 2020 assessment


A 2020 Assessment of lion numbers in Lion Conservation Unitsand range states’ capabilities to conserve wildlife.


In 2012, LionAid published a review of lion numbers across Africa. Based on an evaluation of the scientific literature, limited population surveys, informal reports, wildlife department estimates, credible authority estimates and personal communications, LionAid estimated then that a total of 645-795 wild lions remained in western and central African Lion Conservation Units (LCUs) and that 14,450 wild lions remained in eastern and southern African LCUs – for a continental total of 15,244 wild lions.

That was 58% lower than the 2006 IUCN estimates of lion populations in LCUs that were populated optimistically and in many cases without actual information. Of 20 western and central African lion locations identified in 2006, LionAid and others estimated in 2012 that lions were already extinct/nonviable in 13 areas. Of 66 eastern and southern African LCUs identified in 2006, LionAid estimated in 2012 that lions were already extinct/nonviable in 21 areas.

Using the same methods of gathering information in 2020, LionAid now estimates significant further declines in Africa’s continental lion population. Western and central populations in LCUs are now estimated to have declined to 410 wild lions (a decrease of 43% since 2012) and eastern and southern African LCUs are now estimated to have declined to 9,200 wild lions (a decrease of 37% since 2012). This would mean a continental total of 9,610 lions remaining in the African continental LCUs. Of the 20 western and central African LCUs LionAid now estimates populations are extinct/nonviable in 15 areas. Of the 66 eastern and southern African LCUs LionAid now estimates populations are extinct/nonviable in 21 areas and 23 have severely threatened populations.  

The reasons for these declines are varied. In western Africa, the largest population in the W-Arly-Pendjari LCU is severely threated by civil strife in the area, with armed insurgents causing close to 1,300 civilian deaths in 2019. In eastern and southern Africa, similar strife is causing/has caused considerable upheaval in South Sudan (involving western Ethiopia), Somalia (involving border areas of Kenya), northern Mozambique, northern Democratic Republic of Congo, etc. Bushmeat poaching, either to feed local populations or commercial, has increased dramatically across lion habitats – decreasing natural prey for lions and causing mortalities for lions caught in poachers’ snares for example. Subsistence agriculture, livestock invasions, human settlements have expanded across many LCUs. Many African lion range states have experienced high levels of elephant poaching for the illegal ivory trade. The Selous Game Reserve and several other Tanzanian LCUs have experienced heavy elephant poaching that doubtlessly negatively influences lion population numbers. The Kruger National Park (a lion stronghold) has experienced high levels of rhino poaching. Lions involved in “retaliation” killings for preying on livestock have increased greatly in eastern Africa. The use of poisons to kill lions is at an all-time high. And between 2012 and 2020 we have seen many incidences of lions poached for their teeth, claws and bones – marketable commodities in the illegal wildlife trade. Finally, recent disease surveys show increasing spread of domestic animal diseases (tuberculosis, canine distemper) as lions increasingly come in contact with livestock and unvaccinated domestic carnivores.

Even more worrisome is that very many of these remaining populations are small, scattered and long-term unviable. This is the real and present danger for lions – if they can only cling to a few viable populations, what is their long-term future?

LionAid acknowledges that lions are the only large cat species not given adequate protection status by international organizations like CITES and the IUCN. LionAid acknowledges and strongly disagrees with some major conservation organizations which still believe that trophy hunting of lions can contribute to this species’ conservation. LionAid has long insisted that lion conservation will need equal attention to that awarded tigers and rhinos for example. Perhaps with this publication of realistic lion population numbers in Africa there will be a change in present complacency towards this species’ conservation needs. 

Methods and Results

LionAid ranked lion range states according to the following measures:

  1.        Gross domestic product per capita. This is a measure of world nation rankings to determine relative levels of poverty. High levels of poverty mitigate against wildlife conservation. Each country was given a rank of 5=high to 1 =low for this score.
  2.        Percentage of the population employed by agriculture. This is a measure that indicates how important agriculture – often subsistence agriculture – is in terms of national statistics.  This measure is also an indication of percentage of land that is used for agricultural versus wildlife employment to contribute to citizen income. Each country was given a rank of 5=high to 1=low for this score.
  3.        Number of international tourists arriving in the country. Use of this measure can be criticized as tourist arrival numbers are composed of those visiting family, attending business meetings, going shopping – a great variety of activities not including wildlife tourism. However, we assume that the number of international tourists arriving in a country is proportionate at some level to an overall interest in wildlife tourism. Each country was given a rank of 5=high to 1=low for this score.
  4.        The ranking of the lion range state by the Fragile State Index. The FSI determines the world ranking of a particular state based on a variety of parameters including refugee flows, poverty, lack of public services, unequal development, lack of security, existence of factionalized elites, deligitimization of the state, etc. The FSI is essentially an evaluation of how well the state functions. Each country was given a rank of 5=high to 1=low for this score.
  5.        The ranking of the lion range state in terms of the Human Development Index. The HDI is based on the UN Development Programme assessment of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living and quality of life. It is therefore an indication of the relative welfare of citizens in a particular country – a low ranking would mean that conservation of wildlife is well below the priority horizon of citizens deprived of basic requirements. Each country was given a rank of 5=high to 1=low for this score.
  6.        The ranking of lion range states according to the Global Hunger Index. The GHI is an accepted ranking by Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide. The level of hunger/malnutrition is directly linked to levels of bushmeat poaching by rural people seeking sources of animal protein.
  7.        The ranking of lion range states according to the effectiveness/existence of functional wildlife departments. Wildlife departments are responsible for the maintenance of protected areas and wildlife populations. Where national wildlife departments are not effective, all wildlife will decline. Each country was given a rank of 2=high to 0=low for this score.
  8.        The ranking of lion range states according to the presence of wildlife NGOs. These organizations can influence government policy to consider the importance of wildlife conservation. In their absence, there is no effective lobby to ensure conservation. Each country was given a rank of 2=high to 0=low for this score.
  9.        The ranking of lion range states according to the existence of a National Lion Conservation Strategy. Range states still without lion conservation strategies called for by the IUCN conferences lack the will to ensure conservation of the species. Each country was given a rank of 2=high to 0=low for this score.
  10.     The total score of lion range states according to all measures. The highest score achievable for lion range states is 41. The average score achieved for the 17 nations examined was 22, ranging from a low of 9 to a high of 38.

Based on the above 10 evaluation parameters, LionAid arrived at the following Conservation Perception Rank for the examined lion range states and their relative rank (5 high, 1 low). Nations that rank between 1 and 3 will have already lost, or will continue to lose lion populations without a stronger political will to conserve the species. Nations with a rank of 4 could have hope to maintain lion populations with well-thought-out and carefully considered measures. Nations with a rank of 5 could be leaders in lion conservation, but need to wisely and continuously evaluate their conservation programmes.  


GDP/capita – CIA World Factbook as primary source

Agricultural employment – CIA World Factbook as primary source

International Tourist Arrivals (x 1000)  – World Trade Organization

Fragile States Index – The Fund for Peace

Human Development Index – UNDP

World Hunger Index – Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide

Wildlife Department presence/effectiveness – various assessments

NGO presence – various assessments

Lion action plans – various assessments

Total score – based on a ranking of countries based on listed categories

CPR – Conservation Perception Rank according to category assessments – rank of 1 = failed, rank of 2 = ineffective, rank of 3 = marginal, rank of 4 = effective, rank of 5 = very effective. The CPR does not rank individual nation conservation policy. 


 CPR (conservation perception rank) = 26, relative rank (high = good) = 2. Assessment- Angola is a dark horse in terms of lion conservation. Years of civil strife likely had a strong negative impact on survival of wildlife populations. A recent ground survey in one of Angola’s largest LCUs returned an estimate of 30 lions while many hundreds had been estimated before. Angola is developing rapidly with income from mineral and oil reserves, but distribution of such income to citizens is inequitable. Large wildlife reserves seem to remain gazetted, but very little information about wildlife populations in such reserves is available. Angola does not seem to have a national lion conservation plan.  


CPR =34, relative rank =5. Assessment – Botswana has a very low human density/ land area, and has designated large areas to protected wildlife areas. Botswana recently declared an end to trophy hunting of all wild species on public land following surveys that indicated a great loss of wildlife over the past several years. Despite a high relative country rank, Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks needs to do much better in terms of conservation planning, implementation and ensuring that personnel in high positions are qualified and able to progress wildlife conservation. Botswana has historically decided on livestock cultivation as a major form of land use and the country is criss-crossed by veterinary cordon fences that have had a greatly negative effect on wildlife. Despite a considerable income from tourism to Botswana’s GDP, there is still a disconnect between Government support of livestock versus wildlife.

Burkina Faso   

 CPR =19, relative rank =2. Assessment – Burkina Faso is a relatively small western African state that allowed a high level of lion trophy hunting. The Wildlife Department is not well staffed with qualified personnel and there is no indication that wildlife conservation is important to the people and Government of Burkina Faso. Recent civil strife and armed insurrection have impacted greatly on the one LCU stronghold there.


 CPR= 12, relative rank = 1. Assessment – Chad is a highly fragile state. There is no effective Wildlife Department and levels of commercial poaching are extremely high. There is little to no interest by citizens or Government to conserve wildlife.

Central African Republic   

CPR = 12, relative rank = 1. Assessment – Central African Republic is close to being a failed state.  There is no effective Wildlife Department and levels of commercial poaching are extremely high. There is little or no interest by citizens or Government to conserve wildlife. 

Democratic Republic of Congo    

CPR = 9, relative rank = 1. Assessment – DRC has seen a very high level of civil strife over the past decades. Since the toppling of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the country has been subjected to internecine and neighbouring country battles over territory and resources. As there is no effective Government control over vast areas, wildlife conservation will be non-existent.


 CPR =23, relative rank = 2. Assessment – Ethiopia has a strong commitment to wildlife conservation at the Federal Government level. This does not translate to the level of the Provinces that are highly autonomous. Large areas of land are being sold off to foreign investors for agricultural purposes. Protected areas are not well demarcated, and land sales could include national park land. Ethiopia does have a very strong commitment to lion conservation and ensuring that lions are nationally protected. But displaced persons have increasingly crossed the border with negative impacts on LCUs.


 CPR = 28, relative rank = 4. Assessment – Kenya has struggled to ensure protection of wildlife in the past, to some degree because the Kenya Wildlife Service is an organization that lacks political support. The Kenya Wildlife Act was passed in 2014, but the nation still struggles with compensation in cases of wildlife damage. Community conservancies are increasing, but all but a few have struggled with income. It is estimated that 70% of wildlife occurs outside protected areas to the detriment of communities living with wildlife. Kenya urgently needs to decide a comprehensive formula for effective wildlife conservation that integrates national rather than NGO priorities.


 CPR = 20, relative rank =2. Assessment – Mozambique has experienced a long and drawn out civil war in past years. Militias invaded wildlife protected areas to both provide food for the troops and ivory to fund ongoing military activities. Despite a high population density of impoverished citizens, there remains a will by Government to ensure survival of the little wildlife that remains. Some national parks like Gorongosa report lion population increases, but there has never been conducted a comprehensive lion survey and large parts of the north are suffering armed insurrections involving a diversity of radical Islamic groups.


 CPR =35, relative rank = 4. Assessment – Namibia, despite this high rank, is a conflicted nation in terms of effective lion conservation. Despite a considerable increase in community conservancies that combine trophy hunting and tourism as primary income streams, there are still major issues to be addressed in terms of lion conservation. Namibia, together with Kenya, was charged in 2011 to deliver to the CITES Animals Committee a “Periodic Review” of the status of lion populations in Africa. Namibia has delayed this delivery and the initiative is now listed as “invalid”. Trophy hunting of lions is not sustainable, especially for the desert-adapted population.    

South Africa   

CPR = 38, relative rank = 5. Assessment – South Africa has allowed lions to be placed in private hands and captive breeding largely supplies the trophy hunting industry. There are now an estimated 12,000 lions in such breeding programmes. With trophy hunting rates of captive bred lions falling due to criticism from both conservation and hunting organizations, South Africa has now allowed exports of bones by captive breeders to supply highly dubious “Traditional Chinese Medicine” suppliers. TCM spans borders into Laos, Vietnam at least.

South Sudan   

CPR = 13, relative rank = 1.  Assessment – South Sudan was long engaged in a war with Sudan and only recently gained some measure of independence. Now, different factions within South Sudan are engaged in armed confrontations, resulting in wide displacements among the civilian population. Wildlife conservation is not a political priority, and now there is the equivalent of civil war in South Sudan displacing an estimated 4 million people. Many have fled across the border to Ethiopia, site of an important Ethiopian lion LCU.


CPR = 9, relative rank = 1. Assessment – Somalia tops the Fragile States Index, and has seen a succession of territorial battles between militias and armies sent by the African Union. There is no wildlife department, no interest in wildlife conservation. 


 CPR = 26, relative rank = 3. Assessment – Tanzania is recovering a will to conserve wildlife, but past damages linger. Lion hunting has been ongoing for many years and is still practiced at highly unsustainable levels given there has never been a comprehensive lion survey in trophy hunting concessions. The government continues to publish their own baseless lion population estimates of over 16,800 lions in Tanzania alone. Human lion conflict is high. Still, Tanzania contains three of the largest lion population within LCUs – Serengeti/Mara, Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha/Rungwa.  


CPR = 27, relative rank = 4. Assessment – Uganda recently banned all trophy hunting after a brief engagement. A high human population density leads to considerable human wildlife conflict. Uganda is attempting conservation measures.


 CPR = 24, relative rank = 3.  Assessment – Zambia has very high levels of poaching which in the past has virtually eliminated all rhinos and a great number of elephants. Zambia has suffered great declines in lion populations in protected areas, and the most recent lion population number stands at 230


CPR = 21, relative rank = 2. Assessment – Zimbabwe has allowed very high levels of lion trophy hunting in concession areas and even within national parks. Zimbabwe has not engaged to facilitate a national lion count and researchers have not conducted them either in their areas. Bushmeat poaching is at high levels as poverty levels increase and the national economy continues to collapse.  

Lion Conservation Units

The IUCN published two reports in 2006 based on regional meetings on lion conservation for western and central African lion range states held in Cameroon, and eastern and southern African lion range states held in South Africa. Delegates considered reports by Chardonnet and Bauer & van der Merwe and then were asked to identify Lion Conservation Units – LCUs – areas of possible lion range considered an ecological unit important in lion conservation. For each LCU delegates estimated numbers of lions within, and rated the LCUs according to threat levels and viability. Population numbers in 2006 were decided by delegates with little actual information – for example the Niokolo-Guinee Lion Conservation Unit population was estimated at 500-1000, subsequent ground surveys estimated a population of about 16 lions…

Overall, lion numbers were estimated at 2995-4005 for western and central Africa and 26,995-32,440 for eastern and southern Africa for an overall total of 29,900 – 36,445 for the continent. As mentioned, few of the LCUs had any actual lion counts based on any level of information, and thus the vast majority of the LCU populations were determined by guesstimates. 

Following the 2006 reports a number of on-the-ground studies were performed to assess accuracy of the guesstimates. Henshel et al (2010) surveyed 15 western African LCUs and only found any lion presence in two. Croes et al (2011) revised numbers for Cameroon. A 2012 LionAid conference gained better information from Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mozambique.  Since then, forming the basis for this 2020 update, much more data has become available from limited ground surveys, individual researcher contributions, scientific publications and internet publications, interviews with wildlife officials, NGO representatives, etc. Also, of the LCUs proposed by the IUCN in 2006, few continue to exist as viable wildlife areas in 2020.

Integrating the rank assessments of Conservation Perception Scores, and all past and present information, LionAid arrived at the following revised likely numbers of populations remaining in each of 20 western and central LCUs and 66 eastern and southern LCUs. The category of “extinct” implies that either lions do not occur there at all or in such low numbers that they cannot be considered viable populations.

1. Western and central African LCUs

Based on these revised numbers, LionAid finds that there are likely not more than 9,600 lions left in African LCUs identified by the IUCN, a significant difference from the 2006 IUCN estimate of 36,400. This is a minimum, as lions could occur outside these LCUs. For example, recent estimates of total numbers of lions in Kenya (based on guesses) included 901 individuals scattered over 318,000 km2 – basically not countable in terms of any viable population. Similarly, our estimate might have undercounted small scattered populations here and there, but these do not contribute to the overall survival of the species. In addition, LionAid did not consider lion populations in fenced reserves in South Africa for example as these populations should not strictly be considered “wild” as numbers are heavily managed.

Along these lines, it should also be noted that by far the largest percentage of the LCUs exist as isolated areas with no connection between them and no ability of lions to disperse into, or out of, such Units. This is due to increasing use of previously “wild” lands for human settlements, subsistence agriculture, livestock invasion, and in some countries irrigation projects and commercial farms/plantations being established. The pan-African total of lions is in no small degree made up of adding up small remnant populations across this very large continent.

The percentage decline is again based on populations in LCUs. Many of these “units” no longer contain lions or have dangerously low levels of lions. Of the 20 LCUs in western and central Africa, 16 no longer have lions or viable lion populations (>100 lions). Only one seems to have a long-term viable population, but conservation interventions are highly needed to return this population to a semblance of viability. In southern and eastern Africa, of the 66 LCUs, 21 now have no lions or have a dangerously low level of lions and 23 have largely inviable lion populations – together accounting for 73% of all LCUs. Of the reaming 27%, LionAid estimates that there are not more than 5 LCUs with lion populations exceeding 1000 individuals denoting a long-term viable population. Meaning that only 7.5% of the LCUs designated in 2006 can in any way be considered lion “strongholds”.

Conservation consequences and a future for lions

 Western and central African lions are highly genetically distinct from their eastern and southern African counterparts – in fact analyses have shown that western and central African lions are more closely related to remaining lions in India. Their alarming decline has not received the highly dedicated corrective conservation attention needed from any major conservation agency. These lions could be extinct within the next 5 years, especially as they currently exist in small and highly isolated populations, and their main population in W-Arli-Pendjari is significantly threatened by significant civil strife in the area.    

Eastern and southern African nations have largely remained complacent about remaining lion populations, perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by lion “surveys” conducted by vested interest (read pro-trophy hunting) groups. Indeed, Tanzania – a major destination for trophy hunters – estimates over 16,800 lions remaining in the country. Without doubt Tanzania is highly crucial for the survival of the species. Yet there seems little will on the part of Tanzanian decision makers to ensure the survival of this species – they seem more concerned with milking whatever profit can be made from consumptive use. LionAid estimates that perhaps 4,800 lions remain in Tanzania. Kenya estimates over 2,489 lions remaining, but LionAid would place this number closer to 1,200-1,400 as Kenya “added” about 900 lions across 317,705km2 based on little more than guesses – and such low-density lion populations have little conservation relevance. Poisoning and retribution killing of lions as a result of predator-human conflict remain very high in Kenya.  Uganda could see lion numbers stabilize over the next five years, but at low numbers.  

Zambia and Zimbabwe, among many other nations, have no effectively implemented national lion conservation plans. Botswana has instated two hunting moratoria on lions – one from 2002-2005 and the second from 2008 to present. Nevertheless, lion populations are decreasing due to problem animal control, loss of natural prey, and diseases like canine distemper in Chobe National Park. South Africa has overall done well for wild lion conservation but the biggest population – Kruger National Park – is infected with bovine tuberculosis. Also, high levels of rhino poaching and the consequent encounters of poachers with lions has surely had negative impacts. Across the border in Mozambique, the Limpopo National Park has a very low lion density and high levels of bushmeat poaching. Namibia is seeking to allow ever greater levels of lion trophy hunting (conservancies and perhaps parts of national parks) while not paying adequate attention to the consequent decline in lion populations. 

Overall, the situation for continued lion survival in Africa is extremely grim. The lion is the only large cat not given Appendix 1 protection from CITES and continues to only listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN despite all contrary information. Lion conservation is underfunded and conflicted with several international and local conservation organizations stubbornly promoting trophy hunting as a “conservation” measure, and very little funding made available for crucial nationwide population surveys conducted to adequate standards.  

LionAid is not attempting to be alarmist by publishing these numbers. We base them on solid information and projections about the capability of lion range states to afford this species any level of protection. The tragedy is that ALL wildlife is in serious decline across Africa – some range states seem to have little will, few financial resources, ineffective governments and/or civil strife, high levels of bushmeat poaching and few implemented plans to ensure the future for what has to be seen as a greatly valuable natural resource. Wildlife tourism not only creates significant employment but also constitutes a substantial proportion of African nations’ GDP and foreign exchange earnings. Apart from that, citizens are beginning to realize the great importance of wildlife to their culture, heritage, ethnicity and history. The loss of lions will therefore greatly impact societies at very many levels and without a realistic assessment of the danger, lions will continue to disappear. 

Lion population status in the 49 African continental nations  

  1.        List of continental African countries where wild lions are extinct:



Cote d’Ivoire



Equatorial Guinea





Guinea Bissau







North Sudan

Republic of the Congo

Sierra Leone





Western Sahara

Subtotal =25

  1.        List of continental African countries where wild lions only exist as small, scattered populations or might already be extinct in 2020:





Democratic Republic of the Congo







South Sudan

Subtotal = 10

  1.        Continental African countries where some wild lion populations exist


Burkina Faso

Central African Republic





South Africa





Subtotal = 14

Total countries: 49

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