Lions have disappeared from much of Africa, but for the past few years scientists have wondered if the big cats were hanging on in remote parts of Sudan and Ethiopia. The region’s inaccessibility and political instability have made surveys difficult.
But scientists released a report Monday documenting, with hard evidence, the discovery of "lost lions."
A team with Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), supported by the charity Born Free, spent two nights in November camping in Alatash National Park in northwest Ethiopia, on the Ethiopia-Sudan border. The researchers set out six camera traps that capturing images of lions, and they identified lion tracks.
The scientists concluded that lions likely also live in the larger, adjacent Dinder National Park across the border in Sudan. The International Union for Conservation of Nature had previously considered the area a "possible range" for the species, and local people had reported seeing lions in the area, but no one had presented definitive evidence.
"It's great to have confirmation of this suspected population, especially since we don't have a lot of information on this area," says Luke Dollar, a big cat biologist and National Geographic explorer with the Big Cats Initiative, who was not involved in the study.
Dollar adds that the lion population may be isolated from other groups in Africa, putting it at risk of inbreeding. It's also likely the lions face danger from poaching and snares set out by local people to catch other types of bushmeat, such as their prey species. "Lions are often a bycatch," he notes.
The Oxford team—which is the same group that had studied the doomed Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe before he was killed by a trophy hunter—estimates in its report that the border region could be home to as many as 100 to 200 lions, with 27 to 54 of those being in Alatash. The population is probably limited by the lack of surface water and low prey densities.
But Dollar cautions that the study is not peer reviewed and is based on a small sample size and short expedition, making it difficult to accurately estimate the population.
The lions likely hung on there because the remote area has relatively low human density and a fairly strong presence from the Ethiopian parks service, says Luke Hunter, the president of big cat conservation group Panthera, who was also not involved in the study. "Lions are pretty good at maintaining a foothold as long as the human pressure on them isn't too great," says Hunter.
Hunter calls the study "good news for lions" and says "there are still huge chunks of Africa where we think lions may occur but we don't have good information." Besides Sudan, he lists Angola and parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as particularly promising.
Dollar hopes scientists will continue to study these lions, "and what we do with this information, to promote the longterm health of the lion, is the next step."
Lions’ current range has shrunk to eight percent of their historic homeland, and their population is thought to have declined by 50 to 75 percent since 1980, to less than 20,000, due to problems such as habitat loss, poaching, and other conflicts with people.
This story was updated at 4:25 pm ET on February 2 with comments from Luke Hunter.