At 3 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 U.S.-based wild cat conservation organization Panthera has released never-before-seen images of a lioness and three cubs spotted in February by a 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,” the video footage shows the big cat eating an animal carcass while her 3-month-old offspring try to imitate.
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 organization 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 organization said.
The West African lion is characterized by a narrow mane and bald appearance, 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%, Panthera said, citing the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Florence, the lioness caught on camera, who is thought to be nine or 10 years old, has contributed to the population’s recovery.
“When the history of Niokolo Koba’s recovery is written, this moment will mark a turning point and Florence above all others will likely be recognized as the critical driver of West African lion recovery in one of this big cat’s last strongholds,” said regional director Dr. Philipp Henschel said in a statement.
The cubs — two males and a female — pictured with her are believed to be her third litter since 2021.
Panthera said last year a lioness was spotted with porcupine quills in her face, which prevented her from feeding. Scientists and a veterinarian anesthetized the animal and removed the quills, “providing the young female with a second chance at life,” the organization said.
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the population of lions in Africa continues to decrease. A 2015 study warned that lion populations in West, Central and East Africa could decline by as much as half by 2035.