Despite the array of propaganda in today's media that paints a bleak picture for African lion populations, the truth is, most of the facts are false. We don't know how many lions lived in Africa a century ago. We don't even know how many lions existed a quarter-century ago. And for genetics, there currently is a lack of knowledge about genetic diversity of lions.
Genetic diversity is directly related to a species' ability to survive and thrive. Generally speaking, the higher the genetic diversity in a population, the more resilient that population is to threats on their survival. Threats may include in-breeding depression, disease, competition from other species, and changes in habitat, among others. Understanding the resiliency of a species can give great insight into the future of that animal. Therefore, SCI Foundation has recently funded a study to examine both historic and present day African lion (Panthera leo) genetic samples to determine whether any changes in the genetic make-up of this species over the last 100 years has any indication on its ability to thrive.
Using modern biotechnology, this collaborative study with Texas A&M is using genetic samples dating back to the early 1900s to document historical lion population numbers and changes in overall genetic diversity. Tissue, bone and hide samples will be collected from over 10 museums in the U.S., Europe and Africa.
With this information, researchers will compare levels of genetic diversity from lions in the past to provide a baseline for determining the genetic health of current populations. Ultimately this project has the ability to set the record straight amongst the emotional cries about the downfall and genetic vulnerability of the lion. Science is the cornerstone of wildlife management and this research could provide much needed insight into an issue where feelings often trump fact.