Inside the race to save West Africa’s endangered lions

It's crucial to learn as much about these rare cats as fast as possible to save them from local extinction, conservationists say.

By John Wendle
Published 29 Jun 2022, 11:00 BST
Senegal_lion_pride
Until now, critically endangered West African lions were thought not to form prides. But here in Senegal’s Niokolo-Koba National Park, Florence, a radio-collared female, lies alongside a female pride member.
Photograph by John Wendle

The squeals of a warthog blast from loudspeakers and echo through the trees as Kris Everatt tries to lure in a lion to be darted and radio-collared. He pauses the recorded cries, and the team goes back to waiting sleepily in the truck.

Seemingly out of nowhere, we hear paws crunching through dry leaves close by. We’ve been here all night, staking out the bait, but are suddenly very awake.

Then, silence. Everatt, a Canadian biologist with the wild cat conservancy Panthera who has worked in Africa for more than a decade, has the vacant, intent expression of someone trying to see with his ears.

To my surprise, he begins huffing the deep grunting purrs of a contented lion. The ruse works, and the invisible animal sets to feasting on the bait, a hunk of meat and guts tied to a tree a hundred feet away. Through the dark, we hear sinew tearing and bones splintering.

Rangers investigate a poachers’ camp in the northern part of Niokolo-Koba National Park, where hunting of lions’ prey, such as antelopes, threatens their survival.
Photograph by John Wendle
Mouhamadou Ndiaye, a Senegalese field technician with the wildcat conservation organization Panthera, shows the horn of a dead roan antelope at a lion kill site in the park. The antelopes, which can grow to more than 600 pounds, are a favorite prey of lions—and a target for poachers.
Photograph by John Wendle

We’re in the far southeastern corner of Senegal, in the little-known Niokolo-Koba National Park, a 3,500-square-mile reserve that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. The nation’s park service and Panthera are in a race here to save roughly 30 critically endangered West African lions from local extinction.

West African lions were recognised only recently as more closely related to Asiatic lions in India than to those of the southern African savannas. Indeed, compared to their relatives, the cats of West Africa are taller and more muscular, and they lack those hallmark luxurious manes.

The last holdout lions in Niokolo-Koba are threatened by poaching of the animals they prey on, such as antelope and buffalo. Conservationists worry that the lions themselves are vulnerable too: Lion skins, teeth, claws, and meat all fetch high prices, mostly in Africa and Asia, where lion bone is a substitute for increasingly rare wild tiger bone in traditional medicine.

The Gambia River is the main draw for lions and other wild animals in Niokolo-Koba National Park.
Photograph by John Wendle

It’s difficult to say how many West African lions have been lost to poaching. What is known is that their original range has shrunk by 99 percent, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which sets the conservation status of species.

In Niokolo-Koba, poaching, the expansion of farming, and the increasing incidence of wildfires led UNESCO in 2007 to add the park to its list of World Heritage in Danger. Meanwhile, artisanal goldmining nearby has intensified the pressures.

“There are problems to be solved,” says Jacques Gomis, the head of the park. “We want to get the park off the red list. The goal is 2024.”

Across West Africa, there are only between 121 and 374 mature lions, according to Philipp Henschel, Panthera’s director for the region and head of the project in Niokolo-Koba, who began surveying lions in the park in 2011. In addition to the Senegal lions, a number live in the conflict-ridden W-Arly-Pendjari transboundary reserve, where Niger, Benin, and Burkina Faso meet; others survive in two very small parks in Nigeria. When Henschel began studying Niokolo-Koba’s lions (to date, he’s conducted two surveys), he estimated that there were only about a dozen cats and none of the park’s rangers had ever even seen a lion, he says. 

“We’re in danger of watching one little population after another blink out,” Henschel says of West Africa’s lions, “then we’ll only be left with a few in southern Africa.” During the past two decades, the continent’s overall lion population has dropped by half. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but there are probably somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 wild lions today.

This is why it’s so important to study Niokolo-Koba’s lions right now, Henschel says. “We have to be faster than the poachers.”

He and Everatt think the park can support between 180 and 240 lions. Panthera and the park service are aiming for that number because recovery of this apex predator will help the revival of its entire ecosystem.

“We select lions not just because they’re really cool, and we love lions—which is definitely true—but also because they play such a key role in a functioning ecosystem,” Everatt says. “They also serve as an umbrella species,” he says, because to protect an apex predator you have to protect everything below them on the food chain.

‘Still a blind spot’ 

The Gambia and Niokolo rivers nourish a diverse landscape of forests, plateaus, and valleys. The park harbours not only to the world’s northernmost and westernmost populations of lions, chimpanzees, and elephants but also Lord Derby elands, wild dogs, leopards, hyenas, baboons, kobas (the roan antelope for which the park is named), some 60 other species of mammals, and more than 300 kinds of birds.

Yet Niokolo-Koba—and its few lions—remains terra incognita. “From a scientific perspective, it’s still a blind spot,” Henschel says. “There’s still so much more that we want and need to learn”—especially about the lions if they’re to be saved.

Africa’s savanna lions are well studied, but with West African cats, everything from pride size and range to diet and mating behaviour await scientific documentation. Fitting lions with GPS collars, which are funded by the National Geographic Society, is essential for gathering varied information about them—that’s why Everatt and the team have been waiting all night for a lion to come feed on the bait.

As the lion eats, Mouhamadou Ndiaye, a field assistant with Panthera, slowly lowers his flashlight. The moment the pale beam finds the cat, Everatt squeezes the trigger of his dart gun. There’s a puff, and the lion falls asleep. Everatt drives over, gets out, and tosses a twig at one leg. The lion doesn’t budge.

I’m quietly lowering my foot to the sandy road when Everatt urgently orders, “Get back in the truck. The whole pride is here.”

This lion, a female, is young, which means the other members of her family are almost certainly nearby. It also means Everatt won’t put a collar on her: She’ll outgrow it too quickly in the coming months. The Panthera team has collared eight males so far, but only one female, Florence. As blue morning light fills the forest, Everatt injects her with the antidote, and as soon as she stands up, she starts eating again.

Filling in the lion family tree

Henschel and his Panthera colleagues are fighting tenaciously to ensure that West Africa’s little lion populations don’t “blink out.” Conservation isn’t the only goal. As Henschel worked his way across the forests of West Africa searching for lion enclaves, he collected genetic samples that are helping to expand our understanding of the lion family tree.

In May, Laura Bertola, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, and her colleagues published a study describing their sequencing of the genome of lions throughout Africa and in a reserve in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Their work shows that lions in West Africa are more closely related to the cats in India than to those in southern Africa. It formalises a new division between “northern lions” (Panthera leo leo) in India and West Africa and “southern lions” (Panthera leo melanochaita) in southern Africa.

“We didn’t come up with a new subspecies or anything like that,” Bertola says. “We just redrew the boundaries. Instead of having an Africa-Asia distinction, which was the case previously, we now have this northern-southern distinction, which is in line with the evolutionary history of the species.”  

Although southern lions can breed with northern ones, Henschel says, it would be a mistake to bring southerners to Niokolo-Koba to replenish the population: It would undermine their genetic uniqueness. This makes it even more urgent to save the Niokolo-Koba lions, he says.

“I had a map pinned to the wall,” Bertola says. “Every time [Henschel] reported back, there were, unfortunately, more populations that I could cross off the map. So, I had a map that slowly filled with red crosses, because lion presence couldn’t be reconfirmed in those areas. It was quite depressing.”

‘It’s like CSI’ 

We smell the kill before we see it. Everatt and Ndiaye are crossing a field of thigh-high, lion-colored grass and pushing into the woods, a hushed chaos of vines and thorny acacia. As we descend toward a concealed watering hole, the stink of rot grows stronger.

“Easy hunting habitat for a lion,” Everatt whispers. Glancing at his GPS, he halts. The coordinates indicate the location of a possible kill by a recently collared male. The two researchers spread out, heads bent, looking for clues.

“I love this part—it’s like CSI,” Everatt says as he picks through the undergrowth. It’s like a crime scene, but one where the killer is still on the loose—and may be nearby.

Ndiaye calls out. He’s found scat, a possible clue to where the prey was eaten. He marks the spot with the GPS and puts a sample in a plastic vial for later genetic analysis. The team fans out again.

“He’s seeing the subtleties,” Everatt says of Ndiaye, who had no experience tracking or studying lions before joining the team. “For conservation and ecology in Africa, the future is going to be completely dependent on it being back in the hands of Africans.”

Nearby, the researchers find parts of a jaw and the crown of a skull with a bit of horn. These help solve the mystery: The animal was a young roan antelope. “The spot over there is the kill site, but this is where he ate the head,” Everatt says.

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“It’s just all part of better understanding these West African lions,” Everatt says. “One of the questions is habitat use at this really fine scale—at the scale of killing and eating something.” The GPS collars allow the researchers to see where the lions go, how they interact, what they eat. “You really do get to know the individuals,” he says. So little is known about these cats that building baseline knowledge will be crucial for figuring out how best to protect them.

Patrolling for poachers

The impression of bicycle tires wiggles through the sandy road and into the forest. This incongruous track is the sign of a poacher, Sergeant Mamadou Sall says. Sall, the leader of a group of eight armed national park service rangers, gathers his men, and for the next three hours, we follow the trail over rough terrain for 11 miles toward the national road and villages that form the park’s northern border.

We’re deep in the bush in the north-central region of the park, decimated by decades of poaching and fires; nearly all the undergrowth has been burned away. Soon, the single tire tracks are joined by several others, and rising to a flat patch, we come upon small, empty camps dotting the bush. They’re mostly just circles of stones around firepits, but some have drying racks to process wild meat.

For lions, poaching has turned parts of Niokolo-Koba into a “war zone,” Henschel says. Various efforts around the perimeter have aimed at raising awareness among local communities about the park’s importance, but so far, the burning and illegal hunting haven’t stopped. Usually, the poachers want bigger animals such as antelope, the prey lions need to survive. “Empty-park syndrome” was Bertola’s diagnosis of the outer areas of Niokolo-Koba when she visited in 2014.

“It’s very difficult to ban someone who gets their food from the bush,” Sall says. The hunting is both subsistence and commercial, done mostly by Senegalese but also by people from neighboring Guinea. They use shotguns and assault rifles, not snares or poison. This makes the killing less indiscriminate but riskier for the rangers, who occasionally get shot at, he says.

Panthera has been supporting the rangers since 2016 and now funds three anti-poaching ranger teams and their trucks. A total of six permanently funded teams with their own vehicles would be just about enough to protect the whole park, Henschel says.

By the end of the patrol, I’ve drunk a gallon of water, and the squad hasn’t encountered a poacher. This is usually how their days play out—as Everatt says, even the irregular presence of rangers serves to some extent as a deterrent.

As we return to the more heavily patrolled center of Niokolo-Koba, the rangers’ positive effects are visible: The undergrowth is robust, the animals more plentiful. During one week there, I see five lions, genets, civets, and two species of mongoose, as well as eight species of antelope, ranging from hulking roans to dainty oribis. And driving with the team through dense forest and past watering holes as they looked for likely spots to set up bait to catch another lion, I also saw crocodiles, warthogs, Guinea baboons, monkeys, and 14 species of birds, including the critically endangered African white-headed vulture; its presence after a decade-long absence suggestive of the park’s partial recovery. 

Everatt likens the difference between the park’s perimeter and center to time travel: The outer areas still resemble the empty place Bertola saw eight years ago, and the center shows how a more positive future might look.

‘Kind of a big deal’ 

“Where?”

“There.”

“Where?”

“There!” Ndiaye says, pointing. Florence and two young females, most likely her daughters, are camped out behind a screen of dry grass in the shade of a big spray of palm fronds, right in front of me. Kris guesses a young male, her son, may be nearby.

Everatt and Ndiaye have tracked the small pride using Flo’s collar. We park nearby and get our binoculars out. The lions lie snoozing, occasionally sitting up to watch us watching them. As the afternoon gives way to evening, the lions yawn in turns, revealing enormous canines. Stretching powerful legs and paws, they’ll soon be on the prowl for dinner.

“This is kind of a big deal,” Everatt says as he lies flopped on the roof of the truck. Big cats lounging together under a tree present a postcard image of the African savanna, but some researchers had hypothesized that West African lions don’t form prides, so seeing this group in the park is “new information,” he says.

To date, Everatt and Henschel have identified six or seven small prides, two larger prides, and a few single males. During this year’s collaring campaign, they also found and fitted collars on two members of a coalition of three young males. A coalition, which helps younger males win territory and mates, has never been documented in West Africa, and might be another sign of recovery in Niokolo-Koba, Everatt says.

To repopulate the park with up to 240 lions, Henschel says more funding is needed to expand Panthera’s research program and bolster anti-poaching patrols. The opening of Niokolodge, a tented ecotourism camp in the centre of the park, signals the beginnings of higher-end tourism. “A hunter can make a lot of money with a dead lion,” Henschel says, “whereas, at the moment, a living lion doesn't really pay for itself. Not yet.” But visitors hoping to spot a lion and other animals have begun spending time—and money—in the park.  

For now, Flo and her daughters, relaxing in the shade, are proof that recovery can happen. “I’m hopeful. I think it’s very possible,” Everatt says. “I mean, it will take 20 years, but for us, it’s a long-term effort.”

John Wendle has previously written for National Geographic about Siberian snow leopards, climate change in Svalbard, and artifact smuggling in Afghanistan, among other topics. You can see more of his work at www.johnwendle.com.

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