The forests and grasslands of the Batéké Plateau National Park in south-eastern Gabon are perfect lion habitat – but Africa's largest cats have not roamed the area in any large numbers for more than half a century. The last lion in these parts was shot back in the 1990s, surveys report, and conservationists have since considered the predators regionally extinct here. Until now.

Fast forward to 2004, and the discovery of tracks left by some kind of big cat got conservationists wondering: was this a sign that lions were once against present in Batéké, or did the tracks belong to another feline predator, like the African leopard? Recent camera trap footage captured in the park brought an answer.

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Image: Philipp Henschel/Panthera

In the footage, a healthy-looking male lion ambles along an elephant path near a small stream. Since January, the lone cat has been caught on camera three times, according to Dr Philipp Henschel, Lion Program Survey Coordinator for global wild cat conservation group Panthera. And as if to reinforce the lion's reappearance here, some telling night-time roars have been reported by conservationists working in the area.

"This footage is truly unexpected, and yet wonderful proof that life for the lions of Gabon and the region still remains a possibility," Henschel says.

The camera traps that captured the amazing footage had been set up in the park as part of a chimpanzee survey led by Panthera’s partners, the Max Planck Institute and The Aspinall Foundation. Just days after the lion discovery, the three organisations teamed up to launch a new camera trap study to establish whether the animal recorded is a lone stray or forms part of a breeding population. 

“We don’t yet know if the individual observed in Batéké is a remnant of the historical lion population in the area or a transient individual that has crossed the Congo River [and has] travelled a considerable distance through the Congolian savannah. We hope for further sightings,” says Damian Aspinall, chairman of The Aspinall Foundation.

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Preserving the precious forests and savannahs of West Africa is important for a range of species, including forest elephants. Image: Philipp Henschel/Panthera

The lion populations found in the patchwork of forests and open grasslands of Gabon, Congo and north-eastern DRC are distinctive and specially adapted to this landscape. "Scientists generally call (or used to call) lions in this area Batéké lions, as this population, roaming the vast Batéké Plateau, is isolated from other lion populations, and has adapted to this unique forest-savannah mosaic, which it shares with chimps, gorillas and forest elephants. It is not a separate species or sub-species, however – simply a unique population specialised in surviving in the forest-savannah mosaic," explains Henschel.

Last year, the results of a six-year study initiated by Panthera and carried out in 17 countries, from Senegal to Nigeria, indicated a "catastrophic collapse" in the number of lions in West Africa, with the study finding only around 400 of the big cats in the region, and fewer than 250 mature lions of breeding age.

Preserving the precious forest and savannah around the Batéké Plateau is crucial not only for the lions' continued survival here, but also for species like the critically endangered western lowland gorilla, whose numbers have declined by 60 percent over the past two decades. Giant pangolins, golden cats, leopards, as well as chimpanzees and forest elephants also stand to benefit from the protection of these areas.