(CNN)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.
Is this one of Central Africa's last lions?
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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."