Charting New Territory for Lions in Gabon
Communications and Digital Content Manager
September 28, 2020
Plateaux Bateke National Park (PBNP) is a truly special landscape in Gabon where we have an amazing opportunity to facilitate the first lion restoration ever in West and Central Africa. Our two main goals for protecting the park include maintaining and reinforcing law enforcement and rebuilding its lion population to restore the park’s ecological functions and create future tourism opportunities.
Camera traps help us capture stunning photos of wildlife in the park like this leopard.
Plateaux Bateke National Park (PBNP) is a unique landscape in Gabon and the only place where lions can coexist side-by-side with Congo Basin rainforest wildlife like forest elephants, western lowland gorillas and chimpanzees. This vast forest-savanna mosaic was the last stronghold for the lion in Gabon and neighboring Congo for many years until they were considered extirpated in the mid-1990s.
Panthera has been collaborating with ANPN, Gabon’s National Park Agency, since 2010 to monitor wildlife in the park. In 2015, though, after two decades of absence, a lone male lion was photo-captured in the park. We knew this lion represented a new hope for Gabon and, indeed, West and Central Africa, where the lion is quickly disappearing. We increased our level of wildlife monitoring in the park and began training and supporting anti-poaching patrols. The main threat to the park’s wildlife is poaching, mainly coming from the neighboring Republic of Congo. Luckily, wildlife has steadily recovered since park creation on the Gabon side of the landscape.
Plateaux Bateke National Park (PBNP) is a unique, vast forest-savanna mosaic landscape in Gabon.
Current Panthera staff helped conduct first surveys in the landscape in 2001 and 2003 (before Panthera even existed). The camera trap data from those past surveys and today reveal a decrease of poacher capture rates of 99.5% and steep increases in photographic rates for larger wildlife between 2001-2003 and 2017-2018:
750% for forest elephant
820% for forest buffalo
73% for leopard
During our initial surveys of this landscape in 2001 and 2003, lions and leopards were completely extirpated from what is now the park. It is fantastic to see how wildlife has recovered thanks to the protection efforts of our friends at ANPN. The return of the system’s top predator in 2015 is the last missing piece of the puzzle to fully restore this unique ecosystem. “”
- Philipp Henschel, West and Central Africa Regional Director
The park is also home to three other cat wild species: leopard, African golden cat and serval. It also harbors released orphaned gorillas and wild chimpanzees. Our camera trap monitoring established that the lone male lion first recorded in 2015 has since then taken up residency in the park. The government, in response, has decided to actively restore the park’s lion population. Park authorities have invited Panthera to use this male as one of the founders of a new breeding population in the landscape.
If successful, this would be the first lion restoration ever in West and Central Africa. To rebuild the population, we will use wild and genetically compatible lions, starting with females. This “soft release” process means the individuals spend a short amount of time inside a pre-release enclosure within the national park. Eventually, they will be given free roam and monitored by GPS collars.
After two decades of absence, a lone male lion was photo-captured in the park.
A major part of planning for this lion reintroduction project includes surveying local communities living in the vicinity of the park. We want to help assist these communities stabilize their livelihoods by providing them access to main towns (to sell products such as cassava, pineapple and wine) as well as providing electricity. These efforts will help reduce their dependence on wild meat as a food source and provide more prey to the new lion population.
Eventually, as wildlife populations increase, we hope to develop ecotourism in the park in collaboration with local communities. The majority of park guards currently protecting the park are from local communities and wildlife recovery in the park will create even more local jobs, including as additional guards, tour guides and drivers.
While our joint efforts with ANPN have resulted in a major decrease in poaching events in the park, we are still seeing illegal hunting persist. Guards are facing more dangerous situations including poachers armed with large-caliber rifles or automatic weapons. The illegal bushmeat trade is considered an indirect threat to the park’s burgeoning lion population as it reduces the available prey for these big cats and can drive them (as well as other large carnivores) to search for food outside of the park. Traveling outside of protections and closer to communities increases the risk of conflict for these animals.
The park also harbors released orphaned gorillas and wild chimpanzees.
While most of the wildlife killed goes into a transborder bushmeat network, animals like elephants are specifically targeted for body parts like ivory by international crime organizations. Even lions are targeted by poachers opportunistically (while on the hunt for other animals) in parks where they exist since their body parts are highly valued on the black market.
As we continue to plan for the eventual reintroduction of lions into the park, our support to ANPN’s patrolling and surveillance efforts remain strong. We’re seeing positive results from both in the forms of arrests, convictions and reductions in poaching and increases in the numbers and variety of species caught on camera-trap. Soon we will begin building the pre-release enclosure, and we hope to begin translocating two female lions from northern Namibia in early 2021, provided local authorities in southeast Gabon and community representatives are fully on board. Earlier consultations were positive and will be followed up by further meetings later this year.
Besides lions, the park is also home to 3 other cat wild cat species; leopard, African golden cat and serval (pictured here).
With all big cats becoming so rare in this region, we know our work is crucial to the protection and rebuilding of lions, leopards and other wildlife in this park. If our lion reintroduction efforts prove fruitful and the dedicated park staff can keep them safe, we will hear the roar of lion prides in Gabon once again. Stay tuned for more updates on our work in PBNP and around the globe.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union through IUCN Save Our Species Initiative (www.saveourspecies.org/). Its contents are the sole responsibility of Panthera and do not necessarily reflect the views of IUCN or the European Union (https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid). Save Our Species Initiative contributes to the long-term survival of threatened species, their habitats and the people who depend on them by supporting civil society organizations. We are also grateful for the support of the Lion Recovery Fund and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service