By Hannah Campbell
Lions are a critical part of the African ecosystem, keeping herbivore numbers under control. If the herbivore population is not regulated, the increase of competition among them could cause some to go extinct, and reduce biodiversity. They also play a part in keeping herds healthy and strong by preying on the weakest members. Lions also effect the behaviour of prey species that in turn change the spatial pressure on plants, which can influence other species and even water systems – known as a trophic cascade.
Unfortunately, lions are in trouble. The ever increasing human population both threatens lion habitat and means lions are continuously pushed into closer contact with people, which increases the risk of human-wildlife conflict and the killing of lions in relation for killing livestock.
Our partner, Lion Landscapes, is working towards mitigating human-lion conflict by collaring lions in partnership with KWS. Specialised lion GPS collars are deployed and managed in order to provide livestock owners with real time lion movement data via a mobile app, developed by Save The Elephants. This is part of on-going research into how lions use human-dominated landscapes at different stages of their lives, and helps people keep their livestock away from lions or increase vigilance and guarding effort when lions are nearby. Collars also show when lions move into areas where risk of conflict is high, which gives Lion Rangers a chance to act quickly to prevent livestock form being attacked by lions and resulting retaliation. Altogether, information from collars reduces attacks on livestock and retaliatory killing of lions.
Not all lions are collared, so how does Lion Landscapes choose which to collar?
There are three main reasons a particular lion is collared:
1. Monitoring Prides
Lions are unusual in that they are the only social cat. They live in groups known as prides that consist of mothers, daughters, sisters and one or more adult breeding males, with the young males being pushed out when they reach sexual maturity to ensure species diversity.
Lion Landscapes aims to collar the oldest lioness in each distinct pride, in order to monitor the prides movements and inform livestock owners when they are close to particular bomas (corals where cattle are kept at night). The most mature female lion is likely to be the leader of the group, and is also the individual at most risk of getting to an age where she becomes a “problem” lion (see below).
2. Monitoring Young Males
When young males leave their maternal prides, they are not yet strong or experienced enough to take on older males to win a pride of their own. While avoiding the territories of more experienced males, they are often pushed into areas with less prey and more people and livestock, meaning they are then at greater risk of being killed either to prevent livestock loss or in retaliation.
In January 2020, Lion Landscapes collared one of five young adult males here at Loisaba in order to monitor their progress, and to help out if they get themselves into trouble!
3. Monitoring “Problem” Lions
There are occasions when lions become problematic, and repeatedly target livestock rather than wild prey. These “problem” lions are usually older or weaker individuals that are less able to hunt for themselves. Livestock prove much easier prey than zebra or antelope when hunting alone, so these lions are in much more danger of being killed in retaliation.
These lions are collared in order for them to be directly monitored, and maps of their locations sent to livestock owners. This means livestock owners are always on high alert when the lion is near and ready to prevent livestock predation. Research suggests that if you make it hard for a lion to kill livestock, and their attempts repeatedly fail, then they are less likely to try again and can eventually give up hunting livestock in favour of wild prey.