Hidden lion population found in Ethiopia

Conservationists have confirmed the presence of lions in a remote park in Ethiopia, good news for a threatened species.

Conservationists confirmed the existence of lions in a remote national park in Ethiopia, a rare piece of good news for a threatened species whose numbers have plunged in many parts of Africa, a wildlife charity said Monday.

The discovery was made in Alatash National Park in northwest Ethiopia, on the border with Sudan, the Britain-based Born Free Foundation said in a statement.

Conservationists obtained camera trap images of lions and also identified lion tracks, confirming reports from local residents that lions were in the area, it said.

Born Free funded the research, which was carried out by a team led by Hans Bauer. He works for the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in Britain. Ethiopian conservationists were also involved.

In a report, Bauer also concluded there are lions in the adjacent Dinder National Park in Sudan. He estimated a population of 100 to 200 lions in the "entire ecosystem," of which between 27 and 54 are in Alatash park, according to the report.

It said the park has never been visited by tourists and that its tourism potential is low, "mainly due to remoteness, climate, occasional insecurity and low probability of observing flagship species of wildlife."

Africa's lion population has declined from up to 500,000 early in the 1900s, down to less than 200,000 by the middle of the century, and now as few as 20,000 remaining in the wild, according to estimates. The drop in numbers is due to the loss of habitat and prey, as well as growing conflicts with people trying to protect their livestock.

The welfare of lions came under increased scrutiny last year when an American dentist killed a well-known lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe in what authorities there said was an illegal hunt. The case prompted an international outcry and renewed debate about the ethics of hunting threatened species.

A few rare Abyssinian lions are still kept at the Ethiopian national palace in the capital, Addis Ababa, and U.S. President Barack Obama was taken to visit them during a trip to Ethiopia last year. The lions, which have black manes, have long been associated with Ethiopia's former imperial dynasty and still appear on the local currency.

Claudio Sillero, deputy director of the wildlife research group at Oxford University, said it was particularly rewarding to confirm the presence of lions in remote Alatash park because original assessments suggested there weren't any there at all.

"A little good news doesn't hurt," Sillero said.

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