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Since 2011, Senegal’s Niokolo Koba lion population has more than doubled, with one lioness contributing one third of park’s lion population.
New York, NY - In a thrilling sign of recovery for the Critically Endangered West African lion, Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, and Senegal’s Department of National Parks (DPN) have released breathtaking footage and photos of a West African lioness and her three cubs as they nurse, play, and feed in Senegal’s Niokolo Koba National Park (NKNP).
Captured with remote camera traps in time for World Wildlife Day on March 3, the high-definition videos and photos feature ‘Florence,’ a 9 to 10-year-old GPS-collared lioness that scientists believe has now given birth to three litters — nine cubs in total — in her lifetime. Now considered the matriarch of Niokolo Koba, this lioness has contributed approximately one third of the park’s lion population.
In 2021, Florence or Flo was the first lion in Senegal — and only lioness out of six individuals — to be collared. After two years of monitoring her activities, Florence’s GPS collar stopped functioning in early February, raising fears that she had been killed by poachers, a male lion or a buffalo. Panthera scientists began an intensive search that included placing camera traps in areas where she was last tracked. Footage soon revealed that Florence had been denning — or holing up in a dense forested area — to safely birth her three cubs.
Panthera West and Central Africa Regional Director Dr. Philipp Henschel stated, “When the history of Niokolo Koba’s recovery is written, this moment will mark a turning point and Florence above all others will likely be recognized as the critical driver of West African lion recovery in one of this big cat’s last strongholds.”
Since Panthera began working in NKNP in 2011, the lion population has more than doubled from 10-15 individuals to 30 today due to persistent anti-poaching and scientific monitoring efforts. Among the nine cubs Florence has contributed are three males that have formed the park’s first coalition. The existence of a male coalition is an especially encouraging sign of lion recovery, as such units are formed only when numbers are high enough to warrant competition between males.
Just 120-374 West African lions are estimated to remain in the wild today, with their historic range having shrunk by 99 percent. Panthera scientists have set the ambitious goal of growing NKNP’s lion population to 50 by 2025 and 100 lions by 2030. Ultimately, they believe the park can support 180-240 lions.
Niokolo Koba is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site providing refuge for one of the largest and most protected West African lion populations. Characterized by a thin mane and lanky body, the West African lion is genetically distinct and part of the Northern lion subspecies, which also includes Asiatic lions, and is genetically distant from the Southern lion subspecies inhabiting eastern and southern Africa. A state icon, the lion serves as the official symbol of Senegal and the national football team mascot, along with being highlighted in the country’s anthem.
Despite their regional reverence, however, West African lions have suffered particularly dramatic population declines due to illegal hunting of the species’ prey, poaching for the illegal wildlife trade, direct killing over livestock depredation, and loss of habitat.
Since 2017, Panthera has partnered with Senegal’s DPN to develop NKNP’s infrastructure to support wildlife protection efforts, including the construction of roads and ranger bases. Panthera has also hired, trained, equipped, and deployed antipoaching rangers, while monitoring the park’s wildlife utilizing camera traps, scat collection and more. Such stringent protection efforts have helped herbivore populations — including Roan antelope and African buffalo — rebound, another hopeful sign for the region’s lions. Over the past two years, the Panthera and DPN partnership has also expanded counterpoaching operations to now cover the entire NKNP landscape of 9,000 km2.
Scientists also recognized a lioness that was rescued by the Panthera-DPN team in 2022. Last year, the lioness was spotted with thick porcupine quills in her face, which had prevented her from feeding for a month and would have resulted in her imminent death. Scientists and a veterinarian anesthetized the lioness and removed the quills, providing the young female with a second chance at life. The new sighting reveals she has recovered.
Celebrated under the theme of ‘Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation,’ this year’s World Wildlife Day offers an opportunity to showcase conservation success stories like that of Florence made possible only due to the alliance between Panthera and Senegal’s Department of National Parks. March 3rd marks the 50th anniversary of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, a landmark treaty to protect endangered plants and animals.
Panthera, founded in 2006, is devoted exclusively to preserving wild cats and their critical role in the world’s ecosystems. Panthera’s team of leading biologists, law enforcement experts and wild cat advocates develop innovative strategies based on the best available science to protect cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards, tigers and the 33 small cat species and their vast landscapes. In 39 countries around the world, Panthera works with a wide variety of stakeholders to reduce or eliminate the most pressing threats to wild cats — securing their future, and ours. Visit panthera.org.