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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - Senegal Threatened with Loss of Lions

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Researchers warn that the king of the animals -- the lion -- is rapidly losing its habitat in the savannahs of Africa.
Researchers warn that the king of the animals -- the lion -- is rapidly losing its habitat in the savannahs of Africa.

From VOA Learning English, this is Science in the News.

I'm Anna Matteo.

And I'm Christopher Cruise.

Today on the program, we tell about problems facing lions in West Africa. Wildlife experts say the big cats are being pushed out of their natural environments. We also tell about a life-size model of the final resting place for Egypt's "boy king."

West African Lions Under Threat in Senegal

Some experts say as many as 40,000 lions once lived in West Africa. But a recent wildlife study estimates that only 400 of the big cats remain. The lions have been pushed out of their homelands. Today, they are fighting for survival in just four protected parks in the area.

West African lions (Philipp Henschel / Panthera)
West African lions (Philipp Henschel / Panthera)

Like many African countries, Senegal has attempted to balance environmental concerns with development. Today, Niokolo Koba National Park is the last place in Senegal where some of Africa's most famous animals live in freedom. The 9,130 square kilometers of parkland are home to lions and other wildlife. But a busy road runs through the middle.

Colonel Ousmane Kane is the chief conservation officer for the park. He says all the animals living there are important, but the lion is central. He calls it a symbol, or sign, of the country. The colonel notes that Senegalese people sing about it in their national anthem. And, the national football team is called the Lions.

But Senegal is threatened with losing its lion population. Colonel Kane estimates that there are about 100 of the animals left in Niokolo Koba. But the international conservation group for wild cats -- Panthera -- says that is old information. It says there are only 16 lions left.

Phil Henschel works for the group. He is heading a study called the Lion Program Survey.

"What is really telling is well is when I conducted the survey with five National Park Service staff in 2011, none of them had ever seen a lion in their lives. I mean, one of them had worked in the park for 10 years yet never, ever laid eyes on a lion. So people are realizing how rare these animals are nowadays."

Senegalese officials are using suggestions from the Panthera study to help develop a plan to save the remaining lions. One of these suggestions is barring villagers from letting their cattle feed in protected areas. Those animals eat food needed by other wildlife in the park. That harms the wildlife that lions traditionally feed on.

El-Hadj Fadya is the chief in Dienoun Diala, a village near the park. He says villagers do let their livestock eat in the open national park. But he says they do not want the lions to disappear. He says there is not enough protection and enforcement efforts for a park the size of Niokolo-Koba.

Dr. Henschel says Senegal spends little to protect and preserve the lions in Niokolo-Koba. In fact, he says, Senegal spends about one-tenth of the amount spent in similar parks in Burkina Faso and Benin. He says those two countries are home to 90 percent of the remaining lions in West Africa.

"I mean, those countries are, are seriously investing in lion, lion conservation and protected area management in general, and it does pay off."

Their increased investment increases the number of visitors, which helps pay for conservation operations. Dr. Henschel says Senegal should do the same to prevent illegal activity in the park.

The trade for wild-animal meat in Senegal has cut the numbers of other animals in the park that lions would normally eat. The population of animals like the buffalo and roan antelope has decreased by 95 percent over the past 20 years.

Demba Faye is one of 150 rangers who guard the park.

He says the rangers arrested four poachers earlier this year. He says they are fighting hard to save the park. But he says there is not enough money to end illegal hunting.

Model of King Tut's Tomb Opens in Egypt

The tomb of Egypt's King Tutankhamun was lost to the world for thousands of years. Then, in 1922, a team led by British archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb and opened it. But in the years since then, the king's ancient burial place has suffered serious damage.

In this Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007 file photo, Egypt's then-antiquities chief Dr. Zahi Hawass (center) supervises the removal of King Tut from his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.
In this Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007 file photo, Egypt's then-antiquities chief Dr. Zahi Hawass (center) supervises the removal of King Tut from his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt.

To rescue the tomb from further harm, workers in Egypt have created a full-size replica -- an exact copy of it. The replica was opened to visitors recently. The real tomb will remain open, at least for now. But archeologists hope that the replica will lead some people to visit the copied tomb instead of the real one. They hope less traffic to the actual tomb will reduce damage.

Tutankhamun -- Tut, for short -- was arguably the world's most famous ruler. He is often called the "boy king." Scientists say Tut was born more than 3,300 years ago. He ruled from childhood and was thought to be about 19 years old when he died. He was buried among other members of ruling families in the Valley of the Kings. The area stretches along the Nile River, near Luxor.

The replica of Tutankhamun's tomb is so like the real tomb that some archeologists call it "unbelievable." Laser instruments and printing equipment covered the replica's walls with the colors and texture of the real murals. Over time, the ancient walls suffered damage from moisture in the air. The ancient tomb was unable to stay cool and dry because of all the visitors. Temperature changes made pieces of the paint fall off. Cracks in the walls got bigger.

Work began on the replica in 2009. But political insecurity and unrest slowed the project. The number of foreign tourists visiting Egypt has dropped in recent years. The amount of money earned from tourism also is lower.

Before the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Zahi Hawass was the best-known archeologist in Egypt. Several American and international researchers say he influenced many tourists to visit Egypt's ancient places.

Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass was known for his energy and ability to make difficult information available to non-students of archeology. He often appeared on television. He gave public talks and wrote books. He organized a traveling exhibit called "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs." The show helped raise more than $100 million for Egypt.

Zahi Hawass wore a hat similar to that of the movie character Indiana Jones. He also had an online fan club. But some people thought of him as being too close to the Mubarak government, which he denies. Some called him "the Mubarak of archeology." His critics included many other archeologists and students of the science.

​This Science in the News was produced by Christopher Cruise.

I'm Anna Matteo.

And I'm Christopher Cruise.

Join us next week for more news about science here on the Voice of America.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson from reports by Nick Loomis in Tambacounda, Senegal and George Putic in Washington

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