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Lewa's Desert Lions!

September 16, 2013

Lions in Africa are all the same lions you might think. But perhaps it is not as simple as that. In Asia for example, it has been shown that the small remaining population of Asiatic lions (Panthera leo asiatica) in the Gir Forest in India are from a separate ancestral lineage. But recent evidence suggests that Africa’s lions are comprised of at least two separate clades as well – northern desert lions and southern savannah lions (Bertola et al. 2012). The point of separation is revealing itself just south of Lewa in the Laikipia district. Lions here appear not to have “communicated” genetically with those in the Mara, or further west, for millennia and Lewa’s cats are thus likely to be more closely related to their rarer more desert adapted cousins. 

However, the link is geographically tenuous, as lion distribution maps testify (see below).

A thin strip of lion habitat is still suitable along the eastern shore of lake Turkana, and this connects the Ewaso Ecosystem of which Lewa is a part, with those living along the narrow band of dry savannah know as the Sahel desert. The Sahel extends between southern Ethiopia and the bulge of West Africa – it is a kind of pre-desert environment skirting the Sahara Desert. Marwell and Lewa have already fitted one lion with a GPS radio collar – Mufasa – to start building a picture of how he and his offspring might be contributing to the greater Lewa landscape, and plans are being formed to extend this project as a contribution to regional lion conservation.

This puts our work, and the secure and viable population of lion living on Lewa, at the forefront of a participatory effort in northern Kenya which aims to secure lions and their habitat for future generations of the maned giants. 

Bertola, L.D. & Vrieling, K. & Iongh, H.H., de (2012)
Conservation Genetics of the Lion: New Approaches to Species Conservation. In: Cervantes Amaya, J.A. & Franco Jimenez, M.M. (Eds.), Genetic Diversity: New Research, pp. 61-82. Hauppage NY: Nova Science Publishers, Inc..
(Part of book or chapter of book)