Rare West African lion cubs caught on camera in Senegal

Dakar, Senegal (AFP) — At three months old, even future kings of the savannah like to play.

In Senegal, a video of three cubs that would have hardly been imaginable a few years ago, has given hope that the revered West African lion, which has been decimated over time, will be revived.

The US-based wild cat conservation organisation Panthera has released never-before-seen images of a lioness and three cubs spotted in February by remote cameras in the Niokolo-Koba National Park in southeastern Senegal.

In what Panthera describes as a “thrilling sign of recovery for the critically endangered West African lion”, video footage shows the big cat eating an animal carcass while its three-month-old offspring try to imitate it.

They brandish their claws and fangs, testing them out on scraps of wood or their mother’s hindquarters.

“This documentation of new lion life… indicates the remarkable recovery of a population on the brink of extinction”, the organisation said in a statement.

Panthera has since 2011 been working with Senegal’s Department of National Parks on conservation efforts in the Niokolo-Koba park.

In that time, the number of lions in the park has risen from 10 or 15 to around 30, the organisation said.

The West African lion is characterised by a thin mane and slender body and is genetically distinct from the African or Asian subspecies.

There are between 120 and 375 of them left, according to Panthera.

Revered to the point of being cited in the Senegalese national anthem, West African lions have been decimated by poaching and the gradual loss of their habitat.

Their historic range has shrunk by 99 percent, Panthera said, citing the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

– Protection works –
According to Philipp Henschel, Panthera’s director for West and Central Africa, the high market value of lion skins and bones has attracted the interest of people connected to jihadist networks.

The spread of jihadism in West Africa is also complicating conservation in some parts of the region, such as the vast W-Arly-Pendjari nature complex between Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, he said.

The impact of global warming remains to be seen, he said, but Niokolo-Koba is already subject to an “extreme climate”.

However, Florence — the lioness caught on camera, who is thought to be nine or 10 years old — has contributed to the population’s recovery.

The cubs — two males and a female — pictured with her are believed to be her third litter since 2021.

“This is a sign that protection has worked well,” Henschel said.

Lions are classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

It estimated in 2014 that there were between 23,000 and 39,000 individuals able to reproduce worldwide, a figure in decline.