In a remote part of Northwest Ethiopia, a large group of endangered lions sleep, survive and stay hidden.
The discovery of these lost lions is indeed a rare piece of good news. Conservationists say this extends the knowledge of the endangered species' current population distribution.
The presence of lions in Northwest Ethiopia also raises hopes that endangered big cats can survive in certain parts of Africa, particularly in Sudan.
Living In The Wild
Born Free Foundation, an organization based in Britain, said the group of lions was discovered in the Alatash National Park by Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.
Prior to the discovery, the Alatash National Park was considered as a possible habitat for lions. The park was rarely visited by people.
Hans Bauer, leader of the Oxford expedition, said he has had many chances to revise the lion distribution map during his career.
"I have deleted one population after the other," said Bauer. "This is the first and probably the last time that I'm putting a new one up there."
The Oxford team obtained images of the lost lions by setting up camera traps on a dry river bed. The images also distinguished lion tracks, confirming reports from residents that lions are indeed living in the area.
Bauer said he already noticed some lion footprints while he was walking to find some trees to place the camera traps.
"That was the eureka moment when I was sure that there really are lions," he said.
On the second night of their expedition, they caught the lions on camera.
The Oxford researchers said they also found lions in the adjacent Dinder National Park in Sudan.
About 27 to 54 lions were found in the Atalash park. With that, Bauer estimated a combined population of 100 to 200 lions are living in the Alatash park and the Dinder park.
The Alatash park has seldom been visited by people mainly because of its climate, remoteness, low probablity of observing flagship species of wildlife, and occasional insecurity, the Oxford researchers said.
The lion population in Africa has plummeted from 500,000 in the early 20th century, down to less than 200,000 by the 1950s. Now, estimates suggest that as few as 20,000 individuals remain in the wild.
The dwindling population is due to the loss of prey and loss of habitat, experts said, as well as growing conflicts with people trying to protect their livestock.
Hope For The Lions
When news broke that an American dentist killed a well-known lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe last year, the welfare of lions has since then been under scrutiny.
Authorities had confirmed that the killing of the lion was part of an illegal hunt. The case stirred an international outcry and sparked a renewed debate about the ethics of hunting endangered species.
Claudio Sillero, the Oxford research group's deputy director, said it was rewarding to confirm the presence of lions in Atalash because they originally thought there weren't any.
"A little good news doesn't hurt," said Sillero.
Meanwhile, Bauer said the lions in the Atalash park face fewer threats.
"The situation is fairly positive. I think the fact that the Ethiopian government recently made it a national park is a giant leap forward," said Bauer.
"Now we have to support them in improving park management, but I think they're taking it very seriously," he added.