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King of the jungle returns to Gabon after nearly 20 year absence

Male lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Most of the world's lions are now found in southern and eastern Africa. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Male lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Most of the world’s lions are now found in southern and eastern Africa. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

There’s a new cat in town. For the first time since 1996, conservationists have proof of a lion roaming the wilds of the Central African country of Gabon. The lion—a healthy-looking, young male—was caught on camera trap in Batéké Plateau National Park, a 20,200 hectare expanse of grasslands and gallery forests.

“I couldn’t believe it. As soon as I could, I went there to set up more cameras,” Philipp Henschel, Lion Program Survey Coordinator for cat conservation group Panthera, told Reuters.

The camera traps were initially set-up by The Aspinall Foundation and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology’s Pan African Program: The Cultured Chimpanzee, to monitor chimpanzees in the park, but videotaped the male lion three times since January. Local conservationists have also reported hearing lion calls at night.

While Batéké Plateau National Park sports perfect lion habitat, lions haven’t been seen in any large numbers in these grasslands—which also extend into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—since the 1950s.

Conservationists aren’t sure if the lion is a leftover from the old population or a transient from the DRC where the closest population is several hundred kilometers away. If a transient—and male lions are known to travel far in search of a mate—the lion would have had to swim the Congo River.

Male lion filmed in Batéké Plateau National Park.

“The return of lions to the Batéké marks a significant step in the work of [the Aspinall Foundation] to do everything humanly possible to encourage endangered species to return to the ancestral homelands which are their rightful place,” said Damian Aspinall, Chairman of The Aspinall Foundation, which has been working in Batéké Plateau National Park for years, focusing especially on western lowland gorillas.

Lions are vanishing across Africa. A major 2012 study in Biological Conservation found that lion populations had fallen a stunning 68 percent in just 50 years. During the same time, lion habitat had dropped by 75 percent of lion habitat. In all, the study estimated that 32,000 lions survived today, almost wholly regulated to eastern and southern Africa. Two years later, a study in PLOS ONE warned that only 250 mature lions survived in West Africa. What may be a unique subspecies is on the precipice of extinction.

If lions are indeed returning to Gabon, however, it could be a major boon for the species as the country is one biggest supporters of conservation on the continent. In 2002, the country set aside 10 percent of its landmass as protected areas, including 13 national parks.