Africa’s lions are dwindling toward extinction at an alarming rate, Duke University researchers say. Using new high-resolution satellite data from Google Earth, they’ve discovered that the savanna habitat that lions need to survive has shrunk by 75 percent over the past 50 years and is far more fragmented than conservationists previously realized. Over the same period, the lion population is thought to have declined by two thirds, from 100,000 animals to fewer than 35,000.
“Those in West Africa are in particularly bad shape,” study author Stuart Pimm tells NBCNews.com; fewer than 500 lions remain there, where the human population has doubled in the last three decades. Only about 24,000 African lions live in areas where they have space to roam and are safe from hunters—including farmers who often kill them to protect their livestock.
Elsewhere, the species is at risk of disappearing. The “stunning and grim” discovery that Africa’s savannas— and lions—are nearly gone, says Thomas Lovejoy, a conservationist at George Mason University, “emphasizes the urgency for conservation of these great habitats.”