A Second Chance for Endangered Lions

By Kristoffer Everatt, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist

Lions
©PANTHERA/SENEGAL DPN

In this blog, read from Conservation Scientist Dr. Kristoffer Everatt about our project recovering West African lion populations in Niokolo-Koba National Park, Senegal. This article details his second trip to the park to GPS collar these Critically Endangered lions. 

I’ve just finished a second one-and-a-half-month-long expedition into Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park in order to capture and GPS collar lions as part of Panthera’s Northern lion conservation and research program. African lion populations have declined by fifty percent over the last 20 years, with the steepest declines having occurred in West Africa, home to the Critically Endangered West African lion subpopulation. Wilderness areas and wildlife are quickly disappearing across West Africa. 

Landscape
©MARINE DROUILLY

Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal is a 9,000 km2 refuge that is home to one of the few remaining populations of West African lions, with the highest recovery potential of any of the four West African populations due to the park´s large size and location in a politically stable country, enabling stable conditions for their long-term recovery. The park, however, is not immune to pressures from the outside: Illegal meat hunting, cattle grazing and deliberately set wildfires eat away at the park’s edges. Severe lack of funding further hinders conservation efforts, and, as a consequence, wildlife populations may be 10-20 times below what the park could support. However, the park does still aid herds of West African buffalo, western giant eland, western hartebeest, roan antelope, defassa waterbuck and kob. In addition to lions, the predator guild also includes leopards, serval, caracal, African wild cat, spotted hyena and Africa’s furthest west population of African wild dogs. 

Leopard
©PANTHERA/DPN

Recent research indicates that strengthening protection of remaining lion populations by assisting states in improving management effectiveness of park authorities is of highest conservation priority. So, since 2016, Panthera has been supporting the national park’s efforts towards conserving habitats and reducing illegal hunting, thus enabling a recovery of the park’s wildlife. These efforts include building park infrastructure, supporting law enforcement and monitoring wildlife populations trends. These efforts have paid off — the park’s lion population has grown from a dozen cats ten years ago to about 30 now. 

GPS tracking individual lions in order to learn about their home range and habitat use, movements, pride composition and prey selection is one component of the monitoring program. Other key components of the program include camera trapping surveys, genetic scat surveys and aerial surveys.

Helping the lion
©PANTHERA/SENEGAL/EVERATT
Our team helps save the young lioness.

I’d like to bring you perhaps the most poignant look into this process. On the very last day of our expedition, we found a lone young, skinny lioness. She appeared to have become separated from her pride and was not able to hunt on her own. A closer look showed that she had a face full of porcupine quills which were preventing her from eating — making her chance of survival very low. We knew we had to do something because, even though this was natural, here was a young female who could make a significant contribution to the recovery of this population. So, we decided to dart her and remove the quills from her mouth and face, disinfect her wounds and give her antibiotics. We then left her with a few days' worth of meat to eat, and ultimately, we probably saved her life. She was too small to fit with a GPS collar, but we took genetics samples from her, and hopefully some day we will find her again — or even better yet, her offspring!

Lion
©PANTHERA/SENEGAL/EVERATT

This story illustrates that GPS collaring these critically endangered lions is not purely scientific. It is important to the world’s natural heritage and the people of Senegal. It’s important to us. For the sake of that young lioness and all of Niokolo-Koba's lions, we must study this critical population. 

Read our Press Release on this incredible breakthrough. Read the second part of this blog series here.

This blog has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States through the BIOPAMA Programme. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of Panthera and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union nor of the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.