Researchers find hidden lion population in East Africa

In remote national parks on the border of Ethiopia and Sudan, researchers have confirmed a small population of lions, the numbers of which are declining drastically in much of Africa.

It is unusual for animals to be added to wildlife population counts in Africa, but that is what has happened. By identifying their tracks and using camera traps that were able to snap images of the big cats, conservationists have confirmed reports from residents near a remote national park in Ethiopia that there are lions in the area.

This is a welcome thread of good news for the wildlife conservation community, given that the lion population in some African regions has decreased by half since the early 1990s and is expected to decline by half again in the coming decades.

“During my professional career I have had to revise the lion distribution map many times,” Hans Bauer, who led the expedition, told the New Scientist. “I have deleted one population after the other. This is the first and probably the last time that I’m putting a new one up there.”

In a paper summarizing the work of Dr. Bauer, a lion specialist from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in Britain; Texas-based animal advocacy organization Born Free; and Ethiopian conservationists, the researchers estimate that there are 100 to 200 lions living in Alatash National Park in northwest Ethiopia, on the border with Sudan, and the adjacent Dinder National Park in Sudan.

The parks do not attract tourists because of their remote location and because there isn’t much wildlife there, probably due to the lack of available drinking water, the researchers wrote in their report.

In an October paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bauer and his co-authors reported significant declines in the number of lions in west and central Africa, and lower declines in the east African countries where they have historically been abundant. In the national parks of Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, the animals are likely extinct, reported the researchers. Though in the southern part of the continent, lion populations are stable and in some places growing.

“These are symbols of Africa,” Philip Muruthi, who is in charge of species conservation for the African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi, told The Christian Science Monitor at the time.

Healthy populations of large wildlife like lions, elephants, and rhinos – all threatened – are indicators of a healthy ecosystem, Dr. Muruthi said. “If they are suffering, you don’t need to be told that those ecosystems are suffering in major ways,” he told the Monitor.

Lions were expected to be extinct in Sudan, the researchers said, so finding them is encouraging. But keeping the population healthy will require work.

“Now the expedition is complete,” said the researchers in an announcement, “the next step is to communicate with the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan and look at the needs for conservation in the area so this previously undiscovered lion stronghold can be protected.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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