An exploratory expedition led by wildlife conservationists from England’s Oxford University have found a previously unknown population of lions in an Ethiopian national park, according to CNN. Led by Hans Bauer, the expedition confirmed local rumors that the lions were living in Alatash National Park, which is located close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan.
“Lions are definitely present in Alatash National Park and in Dinder National Park,” Bauer said. “Lion presence in Alatash has not previously been confirmed in meetings at national or international level. Considering the relative ease with which lion signs were observed, it is likely that they are resident throughout Alatash and Dinder.”
Exact numbers are unknown, but it’s now estimated that between 100 and 200 lions may inhabit the area. Based on images captured on cameras that were positioned in the park overnight, the conservationists believe the lions are a rare Central African sub-species.
Indeed, lions have in general become increasingly rare across the continent. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has described the lion population as “vulnerable” after its numbers have plunged to about 20,000 in recent years. Per the BBC, that number represents a 50 percent decline since the 1990s.
“There may be as few as 1,000 lions left across the whole of western central Africa,” Born Free wildlife programs manager Mark Jones told CNN. “And given that these lions almost certainly belong to that same sub-species, every single population becomes really, really important.”
Now the task among conservationists is ensuring that these and other lions remain protected.
“Poaching for international trade isn’t the main threat to lions—certainly not in this area,” Jones added. “Conflict with local people, and loss of habitat and loss of prey certainly is. So (the lions) need all the protection they can get and we need to work very closely with the authorities in Ethiopia and the local people in and around the park in order to achieve that.”
Half of the battle is raising awareness among nearby communities, and the recent discovery should certainly further that endeavor.
“It is an important finding because knowing where the lions are will help us work with local people and wildlife authorities in order to improve protection and education around why lions are important and why it’s important to protect them,” Jones told BBC Newsday.
Sudan may well have a role to play in the animals’ protection, as well.
“Even though the team only visited the Ethiopian side of the park because of logistics, lions were likely to exist in the larger, adjacent Dinder National Park across the border in Sudan,” Jones continued.
The news has been welcomed by anyone with interest in big cats. Biologist and National Geographic explorer Luke Dollar hailed the discovery as a major step forward.
“It’s great to have confirmation of this suspected population, especially since we don’t have a lot of information on this area,” he said.
Though a lack of surface water and available prey may limit the area’s number of lions, its remote location has likely helped it survive so far according to Luke Hunter, president of Panthera, an organization committed to the conservation of big cats.
“Lions are pretty good at maintaining a foothold as long as the human pressure on them isn’t too great,” Hunter explained to National Geographic.
Hunter expressed hope that the recent discovery is a harbinger of further finds to come. He described it as “good news for lions” and noted that, “There are still huge chunks of Africa where we think lions may occur but we don’t have good information.”
Members of the expedition didn’t initially see any lions with their own eyes, but they did identify lion tracks and record footage of lions with six camera traps that had been left in the park throughout the night.