For the first time, lions have been confirmed to be living in a remote national park on the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. The wildlife advocacy nonprofit Born Free Foundation arrived at the unexpected news after placing camera traps in the heart of the Alatash National Park.
Regarding the discovery, Dr. Hans Bauer, leader of the expedition, said in a statement that the "exciting" news was "hugely important."
"With lion numbers in steep decline across most of the African continent, the discovery of previously unconfirmed populations is hugely important—especially in Ethiopia, whose government is a significant conservation ally," he said.
According to the Born Free Foundation, while locals knew of the lions' existence in the area, the international community did not, only considering it a "possible range" for the species.
Extrapolating from the observed lion prints and camera images, the researchers estimate that up to 200 lions could live in the entire ecosystem, with up to 50 in Alatash National Park, which covers about 1,000 square miles. According to the Born Free Foundation report, wildlife is not abundant in the park due to a lack of available drinking water.
The researchers also determined that lions were likely to exist in the larger Dinder National Park, across the border in Sudan.
Lion numbers have declined by at least half in the last 35 years, and according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, only around 8% of lions’ historic African range remains intact. While a century ago some 500,000 lions roamed the continent, now that number could be as low as 20,000.
The situation has become so dire that the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently placed two breeds of lions under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
At least one recent study found that the lion population could be halved again in the next couple decades if a major conservation effort isn’t undertaken, which would involve protecting their fast-dwindling habitat as well as better regulating sport hunting.