TAMBACOUNDA, SENEGAL — This 9,130 square kilometer parcel of protected land is one of the last wildlife habitats in the country, and a busy national highway runs right through it.
Like many African countries, Senegal has to weigh conservation against development, and Niokolo Koba National Park is the last place in the country where some of Africa’s most iconic species roam free.
According to Colonel Ousmane Kane, the park's chief conservation officer, all of the animals are important, but the lion is key.
"It is the symbol of Senegal," he says. "They are in the national anthem; the national soccer team is called The Lions. Senegal aspires to the quality and boldness of the lion."
But Senegal While some experts say as many as 40,000 lions once roamed West Africa, a recent wildlife study estimates that just 400 remain — largely pushed out of natural habitats and now fighting for survival in just four protected parks across the region.
Colonel Kane estimates that there are about 100 of them left at the Niokolo Koba National Park, but the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera says that's outdated and puts the number at just 16.
“What is really telling is that, when I conducted the survey with five national park service staff in 2011, none of them had ever seen a lion in their lives," says the U.S.-based group's Lion Program Survey Coordinator, Dr. Phil Henschel. "One of them had worked in the park for ten years and had never laid eyes on a lion, so people are realizing how rare these animals are nowadays.”
Senegalese authorities are working on a plan to save the remaining lions using Panthera's report recommendations, one of which involves keeping locals from grazing cattle, which eat vegetation needed to feed wildlife on which lions prey, in protected areas.
El Hadj Fadya, chief in Dienoun Diala, a village adjacent to the park, says that while villagers do graze livestock in the unfenced national park, they don't want the lions to disappear.
"Locals know that grazing livestock in the park is illegal, but they face few consequences," he says, explaining that surveillance and law enforcement efforts are insufficient.
But according to Henschel, what Senegal spends on Niokolo-Koba represents about one-tenth of the amount spent in similar parks in Burkina Faso and Benin, the two countries that sustain 90 percent of the remaining lions in West Africa.
“Those two countries are seriously investing in lion conservation and protected area management in general, and it's paying off," he says, explaining that the increased investment attracts tourism, which in turn helps to fund conservation operations.
Henschel says Senegal, whose bush meat trade has decimated populations on which lions prey — Niokolo Koba's buffalo and roan antelope has dropped by 95 percent over the past 20 years — should follow suit and strategize investments to prevent illegal activity in the park, especially poaching.
But Demba Faye, one of 150 rangers who patrol Niokolo Koba, says that although four poachers were arrested less than a month ago, the park's sheer size makes substantial arrests and prosecution an uphill battle.
"We’re fighting tooth and nail," he says. "[Park authorities] are doing their best, but the funds are too limited. Given the size of the park and the insufficient number of guards, poaching will be very difficult to eradicate."