London | Lions in West and Central Africa form a unique group, only distantly related to lions in East and Southern Africa, according to a new study of lion population in 22 countries including India. This included samples from each remaining lion population in West and Central Africa, a region where lions and other wildlife are rapidly declining as a consequence of the increasing human population.
Based on the genetic data, researchers at the Leiden University in the Netherlands estimated that the split between the two major groups that can be identified in the lion must have occurred 300,000 years ago. To explain what happened in their evolution, the researchers made a reconstruction of African climatological history.
It seems that periodic expansions of the rain forest and the desert drove lions into isolated pockets of suitable habitat, where the different genetic lineages originated that can still be observed today. This influenced not only the patterns we observe in the lion, but also in other large mammals such as giraffe, buffalo, hartebeest, cheetah and spotted hyena.
A general pattern is emerging that shows that many large African savannah mammals show very similar arrangements, with unique lineages in West and Central Africa. The strong declines in wildlife populations in large parts of West and Central Africa are therefore a reason for major concern. The fact that this region seems to harbour a lot of unique genetic lineages makes conservation in the area extremely important.