Helicopters join search for escaped lion in South Africa

Trackers on foot and helicopter were searching for a lion on Wednesday, five days after it escaped from a national park in a remote, arid region of South Africa, authorities said.

After a farmer reported that he'd found lion tracks on his land, the park's trackers, who belong to the indigenous San group, began following the tracks with the farmer, South African National Parks said in a statement. A helicopter being used for a wildlife census also joined the search. The carcass of a gemsbok, a large antelope, was put out to lure the lion but it did not appear.

The 3-year-old male lion apparently left the Karoo National Park on Friday through a hole under a fence that was created by heavy rains. It disappeared into "terrain (that) is mountainous, with many river valleys, thus making tracking difficult," the park service said. Unattached to a pride, the lion was likely pushed out of the park by competition from other lions.

Several private trackers joined the search on Wednesday, said Alex van den Heever, co-founder of Tracker Academy, based in the town of Graaff-Reinet, which is participating.

"The lion is covering vast areas," van den Heever said. The tracks were last seen 13 miles from the park. At least one tracking dog was also being used, park officials said.

The area, in the Karoo semi-desert, is sparsely populated. Beaufort West, a town on the park's eastern edge, has some 34,000 inhabitants.

"Members of the public who may see the lion or any signs of it are requested not to confront it and to contact" a parks official, the SANP statement said.

If trackers find the lion, a veterinarian will dart it with a tranquilizer. Parks staff will then return the lion to Karoo National Park, where it will be fitted with a satellite tracking collar, said park service spokeswoman Fayrouch Ludick.