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Lions have been absent from Gabon, a nation on the west coast of Central Africa, for decades. The last time anyone spotted one of these majestic predators was in 1996, when a French expat happened upon a female lion and her cubs. None have been seen since.
In 2001, Dr. Phil Hensche, a lion program Survey coordinator for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, surveyed the lions in the region. What he found was not encouraging.
“We found that not only had lions disappeared, but there had been so much poaching that there was almost nothing left in the area,” he recalls. Lions, once plentiful in the region, were declared “locally extinct.” He also points out that the lion population in Africa has decreased by 50% in as little as three lion generations, or 20 years.
Though the numbers are still woefully low, things may have turned around locally. Last January, researchers for the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology’s Pan African Programme reviewed video footage in Batéké Plateau National Park as part of a chimpanzee study and discovered something unusual: a lone male lion.
“I basically couldn’t believe it,” says Dr. Henschel. “Not only did we think the lion was extinct in the region, but when I first surveyed in 2001, there was such intense poaching that it was inconceivable that a lion could exist in the area.”
At the time, many staples of the lion diet – buffalo, waterbuck and the like – were similarly wiped out by poaching, making it a particularly barren landscape for any big cats who might want to brave it. He credits the formation of the national park in 2002 with creating a landscape finally welcoming enough for previously extinct species to settle.
Dr. Henschel estimates that the lion traveled at least 250 kilometers from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
“This lion must have walked through quite densely-settled areas, and I’m pretty sure he knows that humans are dangerous, so he would have tried to avoid them at all costs,” conjectures Dr. Henschel. Most likely, this lion left his original home in search of female companionship.
“A male lion would usually be pushed out of his pride by the adults and disperse to a different area to get stronger, build up confidence and challenge a resident male and takeover his pride,” says Dr. Henschel.
“That he left his native area is normal, we would expect that. But we wouldn’t expect his to travel such long distances.”
More footage discovered last Saturday found that the lion has been roaming the national park as early as November last year, suggesting that – though bereft of female companionship – the beast has made a home for himself.
The next step, says Dr. Henschel, is figuring out the genetic makeup of this lion so that in the future, if no females immigrate into Gabon, Panthera and partners could possibly introduce the correct type of females into the park so the lion can mate. In the meantime, he says they’re checking the cameras regularly in case a female does turn up to keep him company.
“It’s not likely, but you never know,” he says.