Getting closer to a much better count of Africa’s lions

A young lion cub rests in the branches of a large euphorbia tree in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area.
Alex Braczkowski, Author provided

Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Griffith University; Duan Biggs, Griffith University; James R. Allan, University of Amsterdam, and Martine Maron, The University of Queensland

African lions are one of the world’s favourite animals. But their numbers have been shrinking over the past century, especially over the past 30 years. Some scientists estimate that their numbers have halved since 1994.

Estimates of the total population of Africa’s king of beasts vary, but a recent CITES report suggested that only about 25,000 remain in the wild, across 102 populations in Africa. But the numbers in this report aren’t particularly reliable. Most used traditional survey approaches – like counts of lion footprints, audio lure surveys or expert opinion – and many were not peer-reviewed.

These traditional methods of counting lions produce highly uncertain estimates. A count of lions using their footprints may give you an estimate of, say, 50 lions in an area. But the uncertainty around this estimate could be between 15 and 100 individuals. This large uncertainty makes tracking how lion populations change from year to year nearly impossible. Our recent review shows that the majority of methods used to count African and Asiatic lions use these less robust methods.

Two young lions rest in the branches of a Euphorbia tree on the Kasenyi Plains of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Alex Braczkowski

Making sure that lion numbers are accurate and reasonably precise is key for the species’ conservation. Estimates of lion numbers underpin their classification as ‘vulnerable’. They also form the backbone for controversial management practices like the setting of trophy hunting quotas.

The good news is that better ways of counting lions are being developed. So called spatially explicit capture-recapture methods are useful for conservation because they tell us not only how many animals live in an area, but how they move in a landscape, what their sex ratios are and even where their highest numbers are located. This method has been used to count tigers, leopards, jaguars and mountain lions for over a decade but it is only now becoming popular for lions.

A review of 169 peer-reviewed scientific articles (Web of Science and Google Scholar) showed many lion abundance and density estimates rely on traditional methods like audio lure or track surveys.

Spatially explicit capture-recapture methods use a mathematical model which incorporates the individual identity of animals (usually from photographs of natural body markings, spot patterns or even whisker spots) and their location in a landscape. By identifying and “marking” individuals over a period of time an estimate can be made of the total number of animals that live in an area.

Better methods from East Africa

This method was first used to count lions in a 2014 study in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. The lead authors capitalised on a historic way of identifying lions: their whiskers. Every lion in the wild has a unique whisker spot pattern, very much like a human fingerprint.

Recently, some of us applied this technique in a count of African lions in southwestern Uganda, in a region known as the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area. These lions are interesting because they have a rare culture of tree-climbing. This means they have great local tourism value as each lion raises about USD$ 14 000 annually in park fees.

The status of lions in Uganda was not previously very well understood. After a wave of intense poaching during the unstable Idi Amin and Milton Obote regimes – 1971 to 1985 – during which time wildlife numbers plummeted.

But recent aerial surveys and radio-collaring studies suggested that lion prey numbers were recovering. A radio collaring study of lions from 2006 to 2010 also showed that lion home range sizes were small, and because range size is predicted by abundant prey, this suggested lions here were in good health.

Uganda’s lions in peril

From October 2017 to February 2018 we drove more than 8 000 km in 93 days searching for lions in the Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area. We obtained 165 lion detections. Using individual identifications from photos, we calculated that on average one could expect to find about 3 individual lions per 100 square kilometres, with a total of 71 lions in the entire area.

Scientists during a census of the lions in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area.
Steve Winter

We used the spatially explicit capture-recapture method to assess how lion movements had changed from the home range study performed a decade earlier. Worryingly, our results showed that lions had increased their ranges significantly in just 10 years – above 400% for male lions and above 100% for females.

Also, there was only one female for every male in the wild. This is very different to other African lion populations which have a much higher proportion of females relative to males (about two females for every male).

Next steps

From the standpoint of lion conservation and recovery these results are concerning. But, on a positive note, this finding has provided a timely alert. And we recommend the use of this relatively novel survey methodology to assess other lion populations across Africa.

Four young lion cubs trigger a camera trap set on a waterbuck kill on Queen Elizabeth’s Kasenyi Plains.
Alex Braczkowski

More recently, in 2020, another rigorous study at Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya, applied this approach and found that this method estimated lion population size to be about a sixth of what was previously thought. The Kenya Wildlife Service, in collaboration with local partners is now using spatially explicit capture-recapture in an ambitious nationwide survey of lions and other large carnivores at all potential strongholds across Kenya.

More broadly, these results further bolster the view that by relying on ad hoc, indirect methods to detect lion population trends, we may end up with misleading answers and fail to direct scarce conservation resources optimally.

We argue that all stakeholders involved in lion conservation across Africa and Asia should use rigorous survey methods to keep track of lion populations. These results should then form appropriate baselines for continent-wide reports on lion abundance, and help inform strategies aimed at their recovery.The Conversation

Alexander Richard Braczkowski, Research Associate, Griffith University; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University; James R. Allan, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Amsterdam, and Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


FactFile: the facts on shark bites and shark numbers

File 20180226 140181 un3yf6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The CSIRO has provided new estimates of population sizes for White Sharks in Australian waters.
Fiona Ayerst/Shutterstock

Jane Williamson, Macquarie University and Vincent Raoult, University of Newcastle

Are there more sharks in Australian waters than there used to be, and are interactions between humans and shark increasing? Some Australian politicians have claimed that to be the case.

Let’s look at the research.

The most reputable source for shark incident data in Australia is the Australian Shark Attack file, which is collated at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.

The map below, created by The Conversation using data from the Australian Shark Attack File, shows incidents between sharks and humans in Australia between 1997 and 2017.

You can use the filter buttons in the map to explore the data by year, season, the type of injury, the type of shark involved, the type of incident – or a combination of all the filters. Press the ‘show all’ button to reset the search.

The number of recorded encounters between sharks and humans in Australia increased modestly between 1997 and 2017, but the reason for this is unclear. Over those two decades, the Australian population increased by 33%, but that alone doesn’t explain the increase in recorded shark encounters.

Correcting for the growth in human population in Australia, the data show that between 1997 and 2017:

  • incidents resulting in injury increased by 1.59%
  • incidents without injury increased by 0.36%, and
  • fatalities increased by 0.07%.

Encounters between humans and sharks are extremely variable over time, and difficult to predict. The increases in recorded incidents between 1997 and 2017 are relatively small, and may be explained by factors not related to shark populations – such as increases in the reporting of shark encounters, or increasing beach use.

Are there more sharks off the Australian coast?

White Sharks (formerly Great White Sharks) are recorded as being responsible for 28 of the 36 fatal shark encounters in Australian waters between 1997 and 2017, and are the primary target of shark mitigation strategies of the Western Australian, New South Wales and Queensland governments.

So, has there been an increase in the number of White Sharks in Australian waters?

Estimating population numbers in the marine environment is difficult, especially for long-lived migratory species like White Sharks.

However, there is no evidence that White Sharks numbers are on the rise, either in Western Australia or along the Eastern coast. Despite targeted conservation efforts, the available research show stable or slightly declining numbers in these populations.

There are two distinct populations of White Sharks off Australian coasts – one to the west, and another to the east of Bass Strait, which separates Tasmania from mainland Australia. The eastern population includes New Zealand White Sharks.

Recent work by the CSIRO through the National Environmental Science Program’s Marine Biodiversity Hub using innovative DNA analysis has provided us with the most detailed and reliable estimates of population size we have for this species.

The CSIRO study shows there has been a slight decline in adult White Shark populations since the year 2000.

Current adult abundance for the eastern Australasian population is estimated at 750, with an uncertainty range of 470 to 1,030. The southern-western adult population is roughly double the size, estimated at 1,460, with an uncertainty range of 760 to 2,250.

Including the available information about juvenile White Sharks, estimates of total size for the eastern population in 2017 was 5,460, with an uncertainty range of 2,909 to 12,802.

It’s difficult to detect population trends with White Sharks because of the length of time it takes juveniles to reach maturity – around 15 years. As protection of White Sharks began in the late 1990s, any changes in abundance would only be starting to appear in current populations.

How else can we measure White Shark populations?

The traditional way of measuring shark and fish populations is by examining catches in commercial fisheries over long time periods. By correcting for the level of fishing effort – which is done by looking at things like the number of nets, hooks and tows deployed by fishermen – scientists can assume that changes in the “catchability” of sharks is related to their abundance.

But due to the relative rarity of catches of White Sharks by fishing vessels, this approach is less reliable for this species than the more recent genetic studies conducted by the CSIRO and outlined above.

Western Australia has a detailed measure of White Shark numbers assessed by catch data. A report published by the Western Australian Department of Fisheries in 2016 attempted to model changes in the southern-western Australian White Shark population since the late 1930s. The authors outlined four different plausible scenarios, none of which suggested a continuous increase in the number of White Sharks.

In New South Wales, there has been a cluster of shark bites in recent years. Data from the NSW Shark Meshing (Bather Protection) Program, managed by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, show a recent increase in White Sharks caught in nets placed near ocean beaches.

But when it comes to thinking about shark populations, we should not assume that these two facts are related. It’s important to remember that just because two things may correlate, it doesn’t mean that one caused the other.

These patterns could mean that the animals are coming closer to shore, rather than a population increase (or decrease).

Shark and human interactions: what factors are at play?

A 2016 paper examined six global shark bite “hotspots” – the United States, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Reunion Island and the Bahamas – and concluded that when it comes to encounters between sharks and humans, there are a range of causes at play.

These include:

  • rises in human population
  • habitat destruction/modification
  • changes in water quality
  • climate change
  • changing weather patterns, and
  • the distribution/abundance of prey.

The authors also noted that shark encounters appear to happen in clusters. For example, 2009 saw a spike in shark encounters off the New South Wales coast. This coincided with an increase in beach attendance and beach rescues during what was an unusually warm summer for south-east Australia.

A 2011 paper highlighted the popularity of water sports as a factor contributing to increased human-shark encounters. More people are taking part in water sports, and improvements in wetsuit technology mean that people are in the water for longer throughout the year.

However, there is limited information on the number of people who use Australian beaches, so this explanation needs to be further studied.

The ConversationIt’s vital that any strategies put in place to reduce the number of unprovoked encounters between humans and sharks in Australian waters are carefully considered, and based on the best available research.

Jane Williamson, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology, Macquarie University and Vincent Raoult, Postdoctoral fellow, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

World-first genetic analysis reveals Aussie white shark numbers

File 20180208 180829 spy0i6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Estimating shark numbers is extremely difficult and very contentious.
Elias Levy/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Rich Hillary, CSIRO; Russ Bradford, CSIRO, and Toby Patterson, CSIRO

Of all apex predators, the white shark Carchardon carcharias (commonly known as the great white) is perhaps the most fascinating. The potential danger from (very rare) human interaction has embedded the species in our national consciousness.

Debate as to the size and status of the white shark populations across the globe is both vigorous and often contested, and it is fair to say we have never had an accurate picture. Now, for the first time we estimate that the total number of adult sharks across the Australasian region is around 2,210. We’re lacking data on juvenile sharks in one region so it’s difficult to say what the total Australasian population is, but it’s likely to be in excess of 8,000-10,000 animals.

Read more:
Worried about shark attacks or terrorism? Here’s how to think about the real risk of rare events

CSIRO researchers working with Australian and New Zealand scientists in the National Environmental Science Program have used world-first genetic analysis to investigate white shark populations. The results of this project, published on Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, are the first estimates of white shark adult population size, trend and survival rates for the Australasian region.

One fish, two fish…

The widely used aphorism in marine and particularly fisheries modelling is that counting fish is like counting trees, but you can’t see them and they move around all the time.

Until now, researchers have had to rely on patchy sources, like historical catch data. The various shark control programs do not provide usable data on relative density over time. We do have information on white shark migration and population structure from electronic tagging and previous genetic studies, but these don’t tell us about shark numbers.

Read more:
Why do shark bites seem to be more deadly in Australia than elsewhere?

To address this key problem we worked with colleagues across Australia and New Zealand to use a highly novel method called close-kin mark-recapture, first developed by CSIRO in the late 2000s to monitor southern bluefin tuna.

Close-kin mark-recapture first involves taking a tissue sample from a shark, alive or dead, obtaining a genetic profile of the animal, and than comparing it to all the other sharks and asking: are these sharks related, and if so how are they related?

Due to a number of factors, it is easier to take genetic samples from juvenile white sharks (in the 3.5 to 4m or less range) than from adults.

In the first phase, we compared the genetic data from juvenile white sharks to look for half-sibling pairs – animals who shared either a mother or a father. The half-siblings are the close-kin side of the problem. The chances of finding these pairs in the samples is determined by (a) the size of the adult population, and (b) the survival rate of adult sharks.

Higher numbers of sharks, or sharks with low survival rates, make it less likely to find siblings in the samples.

This linkage between a specific type of relatedness (half brothers or sisters) and the size and survival rate of the adult population is the mark-recapture side of the equation. In traditional wildlife tagging studies, we “mark” an animal in some way (physically or in terms of visual or genetic ID) and try to “recapture” it again sometime in the future.

The mark-recapture principle is exactly the same with this method. The key difference is that a juvenile shark carries the “mark” of its parent within its DNA, which is “recaptured” when you find a half-sibling pair. Find enough of these half-siblings, and you can estimate both adult numbers and survival rates.


Currently, we believe there are two main populations of white shark in the Australasian region: the “Eastern” population, which is basically everything to the east of Bass Strait (including New Zealand), and the “Southern-Western” population, which appears to range from west of Bass Strait, around the South Australia and West Australia coasts as far north as Ningaloo Reef.

CSIRO, Author provided

As part of phase one of the project we looked for half-siblings among 75 Eastern Australasian juvenile sharks and found 20. To give this some context, 75 samples permits 2,775 unique comparisons between animals. So less than 1% of those comparisons were siblings. We estimated that the number of adult sharks to be around 470 (with a range of 280-650), with at least 90% surviving from one year to the next. Given limited data there was no precise information on adult population trend.

The close-kin approach can only tell us about the adult population, however. To extend these estimates to total population size, we need to know something about the survival rate of juvenile sharks. Using data from around 70 juvenile sharks fitted with acoustic emitters, archived under Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System, we estimated that juvenile sharks had an annual survival rate of around 73%.

Combining these juvenile survival estimates with the adult abundance and survival information from the close-kin analyses we estimated there to be around 4,060 (and a range of 2,500-6,750) white sharks in the whole Eastern population.

After obtaining these results from the initial data, we moved onto phase two of the project. We collected and processed more samples to obtain both more data for the Eastern population, and enough samples and half-sibling matches to estimate the adult population size in the Southern-Western region. In the East we now have 214 juvenile samples, and found 73 half-siblings; in the Southern-Western case we now have 175 samples, and found 27 half-siblings.

The revised estimates of adult population size in the East were around 750 (with a range of 470-1,030) and annual survival probabilities of 93%. Revised estimates of total population size in the Eastern region were around 5,460 (with a range of 2,909-12,802).

Our initial estimates of the Southern-Western adult population were around 1,460 (with a range of 760-2,250) and that survival probabilities were very high (in the 90% and above range, as for the East). So these estimates suggest there are almost twice as many adult white sharks in the Southern-Western population relative to the East.

Are shark populations increasing?

In Australia white sharks have been protected under the Federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act since 1999. Between 1995 and 1999 a national recovery plan was in effect. protected under various state legislation and subject to a national recovery plan.

We found that in both populations the adult population trend since protection has been essentially flat, with no evidence for a substantial increase or decrease. However, the picture is more uncertain when it comes to estimating population changes for younger white sharks.

White sharks take 12-15 years to mature. Assuming protection of the species reduced the juvenile mortality rate, then any such effect will not be apparent in the adult population until the next 5-10 years.

Read more:
Not just nets: how to stop shark attacks without killing sharks

Balancing the conflicting goals of conservation and human protection is at times difficult and contentious. But, unquestionably, without being able to monitor populations effectively there is no way to resolve these questions.

The ConversationNow we can monitor juveniles through electronic tagging programs, and keep track of adult populations with the close-kin method, we should finally have solved the problem of how to track the population size and status of this iconic predator.

Rich Hillary, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Russ Bradford, Project leader and researcher, CSIRO, and Toby Patterson, Senior research scientist, CSIRO

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia: NSW – Visitor Numbers Growing

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Birds: Decline in Numbers Due to Noise Pollution

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Article: Australia – Queensland

Dugong Numbers Falling

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Article: Australia – Hairy-Nosed Wombat

Numbers Are Slowly Rising

The following link is to an article reporting on slowly growing population of the extremely rare Hairy-Nosed Wombat. They have now risen from about 30 in the early 1980s to about 140 now.

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Article: California Condor Numbers Rising

The following link is to an article reporting on the good news that the California Condor population is rising.

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