Three lion cubs in West Africa give conservationists hope for the survival of an endangered regional subspecies of the king of beasts. The approximately three to four-month-old cubs in Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal belong to one of the last four known populations of West African lions that are more closely related to the lions in Asia than to those in southern Africa. According to even optimistic estimates, fewer than 400 lions remain in West Africa - and continue to disappear almost everywhere.
Only the population in Senegal doubled within a decade from 10 to 15 animals to more than 30. Crucial: lioness Florence, who, according to researchers, has probably already given birth to nine cubs. "It's the only population in West Africa that has grown," said Philipp Henschel, Panthera's regional director for West and Central Africa. The globally active wild cat conservationists based in the USA have been officially working with Senegal's national park administration since 2016 and recently published pictures of Florence and her latest litter in February.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed West African lions as critically endangered since 2015 - Henschel was involved. A specialist conference gave the decisive factor to leave all suspected distribution areas from the Atlantic to the Niger River. "The results were absolutely devastating," said Henschel. "Of the 21 areas, we only found lions in 4, in all the others the lion had already disappeared." Poachers and the population growth in the countryside were the animals' undoing.
Little Babies - Big Hope
In addition to the smallest populations in Senegal and two reserves in Nigeria, only the W-Arly-Pendjari protected area in the border area between Burkina Faso, Niger and Benin still had lions. 90 percent of the approximately 400 animals that Henschel and his teams counted in 2012 lived there. Current totals are missing. In Benin, experts recently found around 180 animals, but in Burkina Faso and Niger the threat from armed militias has made it impossible to deploy gamekeepers at all. For Henschel, that doesn't bode well: "Unfortunately, it's usually the case that lions in these areas disappear straight away, because you can make money from them. In West Africa, unfortunately, a dead lion is still worth more than a living one."
The hopes that rest on Florence and her fellows in the south of the hitherto politically stable Senegal are correspondingly high. Florence, who is said to be around nine to ten years old, may have one or two more litters. Three of her sons have already formed a coalition - a group of male lions that Panthera says shows numbers are increasing enough to allow for healthy competition. "It shows that it is possible to get these populations to grow again, even if they are extremely small," Henschel said. "That can and must give hope for other protected areas."
IUCN Wildcat Conservation Organization Panthera Red List entry for the West African lion