For years, poachers ruthlessly hunted lions along the border between Chad and Cameroon in north-central Africa. They killed so many of the majestic mammals that wildlife conservationists consider lions to be extinct in the region. But over the last decade, the governments of both nations have been working together to protect the area’s vast savanna and the many animals that inhabit it.
Now, their efforts seem to be paying off: For the first time in 20 years, a lion has been spotted inside Chad’s Sena Oura National Park, located near the border with Cameroon.
A remote trail camera snapped a photograph of a “beautiful lioness, in her prime and clearly in great health” in February, the nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society and the government of Chad revealed in a joint statement last week.
In the image, which appears to have been taken at night, the big cat lounges comfortably on the ground with her left paw extended and her right paw curled up toward her body. Officials with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Chad government described her as “muscular” and “healthy,” based on what they see in the photo.
They suspect this female crossed the border into Chad from Bouba N’djida National Park in Cameroon, where overall lion numbers are on the rise. The two parks are adjacent to one another, so it makes sense that lions would be “recolonizing parts of their former range, including Sena Oura,” according to the statement.
“This is hugely encouraging, because prime females are the foundation of any lion population, and they are not big wanderers: They inhabit areas that have prey and are safe to raise their cubs in,” says Luke Hunter, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s big cat program, to BBC News.
The new photo has given wildlife officials a renewed sense of optimism about the status of lions in West and Central Africa, where their numbers have dropped by roughly 66 percent since the early 1990s. Lions that inhabit this region are genetically distinct from other groups, so their resurgence is “especially valuable,” according to the statement.
Worldwide, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List considers lions to be “vulnerable” to extinction. But that label is artificially bolstered by a few increasing subpopulations in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and India. Elsewhere, lion numbers are declining rapidly—they’ve dropped by more than 50 percent over three generations—so throughout the majority of their range, lions meet the criteria to be considered “endangered,” per the IUCN.
All told, the organization estimates between 23,000 and 39,000 adult lions exist in the wild. Lions face a variety of threats, all of which are driven by humans: residential development, hunting, trapping, logging, pollution, war, farming and ranching, to name a few.