Gabon's only known lion has once again showed off his handsome maned mug for camera traps in Batéké Plateau National Park.

The encouraging images come via the Aspinall Foundation, a wildlife charity that partners with the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology and the big-cat conservation group Panthera on ecological monitoring in the national park, which is located in Gabon's far southeast.

The latest released footage, taken September 1, shows the male lion highly alert in ringing night woodland. At the end of one clip, he abruptly starts – apparently spooked – and trots quickly off frame. 

Early in 2015, remote cameras set out in Batéké to survey chimpanzees unexpectedly captured the lion, who was subsequently filmed (and heard roaring) a number of times that year. This marked the first definitive proof of the big cat in Gabon since a lioness was seen north of the park in 1996, though promising-looking pawprints spotted in 2004 had biologists intrigued.

The lion's continued presence in the park, home to broad savannahs stitched by thick gallery forests, is an encouraging sign. The sandstone Batéké Plateau belongs to a unique ecoregion called the Western Congolian Forest-Savannah Mosaic, where tracts of grasslands and open woodland cut the otherwise impregnable rainforests and swamps of the Congo Basin.

These savannah islands were historically home to lions, spotted hyenas, African wild dogs and other open-country animals, overlapping with rainforest denizens like forest buffalo, gorillas and red river hogs.

Lions were already disappearing from this region by the 1700s and 1800s, but they held on in places like Batéké into the late twentieth century, and in refuges like the Republic of Congo's Lefini Faunal Reserve to the southeast and Odzala National Park to the north. Habitat loss, poaching and persecution by livestock herders, however, stacked the odds against these survivors.

The big cats haven't been recorded in Odzala since 1994, when a hunter shot a pair of males that had killed two people there; a 2007 lion survey in that park came up empty. (According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, meanwhile, possible lion tracks have been seen in the Lefini reserve in recent years.)

But where did the current Batéké Plateau lion hail from? A barrier of thick rainforest makes it hard to fathom him reaching southeastern Gabon from the diminished prides of Cameroon or the Central African Republic. He may instead be a holdover of the native lions that once roamed Batéké Plateau – forest-savannah specialists distinctive enough that researchers called them Batéké lions, according to Dr Philipp Henschel, Panthera's Lion Program Survey Coordinator.

In a Pacific Standard article from last year, Henschel noted that it's also possible the lion dispersed to the park from the vicinity of Malebo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo some 155 miles away, where the big cats have lately been seen. That scenario would mean the lion, pretty darn impressively, swam across the massive Congo River, a natural barrier cleaving the Western Congolian Forest-Savannah Mosaic in two.

"Genetic studies are ongoing to establish where the lion has migrated from and, in the meantime, it is the power of camera traps in the field which allows us to monitor his presence whilst under the protection of the reserve," said the Aspinall Foundation in a Facebook update.

Interestingly, last year's footage showed the lion sticking mostly to the park's forested corners rather than savannah, the more typical stomping ground for his kind. In Pacific Standard, Henschel suggested this might reflect a behavioural adaptation to avoid run-ins with people. 

At this point, it's unclear whether the camera-friendly male represents the vanguard of a new population of Batéké lions, or simply a lonesome wanderer (or survivor). He'd no doubt love the company of a lioness.

Nonetheless, any bit of positive lion news is something to cherish, as the overall picture for the species has become increasingly gloomy. Estimates suggest only 20,000 lions roam Africa today, occupying a range shrunken and fragmented to less than ten percent of its historical extent. And the situation is especially dire in West and Central Africa, where fewer than 3,000 big cats still survive.