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Winning with lions

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Shivani Bhalla (left) receives the award from Georgina Mace, an oficial of the Society for Conservation Biology. Picture: Courtesy Rupi Mangat 

By Rupi Mangat

Posted  Monday, September 14  2009 at  00:00
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DESPITE THEIR MAGNIFICENT LOOKS, STRENGTH, and the fact that every tourist in Africa wants to have at least a glimpse of this handsome cat, the lion in the wild is fast losing out to man as both compete for space.

This sad scenario inspired Shivani Bhalla to study lions in Kenya’s arid north in Samburu in 2003. It is this research that earned Bhalla this year’s Society For Conservation Biology — Africa Section Young Women Conservation Biologists Award in Beijing, China.

Bhalla, petite but articulate, shared the stage with the internationally renowned wildlife researcher, Dr George Schaller. Dr Schaller has written several books and published papers on conservation. Dr Schaller came to Africa as a young man in the 1960s and worked in the Serengeti and with the gorillas in Central Africa.

“We felt that in addition to your exceptionally positive attitude and academic excellence, your breadth and depth of activities in the conservation and community awareness arenas was second to none. We in Africa are really fortunate to have conservation biologists with such passion and energy in our midst,” said Dr Phoebe Barnard of the South African National Biodiversity Institute in the Climate Change & Bioadaptation Division and the award’s 2009 panel chair.

Working with pastoralists in Samburu, Bhalla focuses on reducing livestock loss to predators, tracking lions movements in and out of the protected areas — Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves — and monitoring habitat changes and prey numbers.

This award will create increased awareness and recognition to the project which allows us to highlight the importance of lion conservation, placing emphasis on the critical situation that lions are currently facing,” states Bhalla.

“There will also be increased recognition among the scientific community which may lead to further collaborations with other organisations. I also hope it encourages more Kenyans to become involved in conservation and be wildlife ambassadors for the country,” said Bhalla.

WORKING WITH BHALLA has been a learning experience. We now have awareness programmes about how and why we need to conserve the wildlife, how to improve bomas and protect livestock from predation,” commented Raphael Lekuraiyo, in charge of the West Gate conservancy.

“We want to see more research, the protected area increased and more tourists visiting,” he added.

The Ewaso Nyiro ecosystem, where Samburu is found, covers 1,000 square kilometres, including the community conservancy, West Gate.

Bhalla’s project is called the Ewaso Lion Project.

Bhalla has been in Samburu since 2002, working first with Save the Elephants and then branching out on her own to start work with the lions. In 2003, she enrolled for a master’s degree to establish a baseline population of lions in Samburu and Buffalo Springs. The population then stood at 38. In 2008, the population fell to 20, almost a 50 per cent drop in five years.

The lion is such a crucial species that were it to disappear, the ecosystem would go completely out of sync.

The prey species would increase dramatically, which would mean competition for food between livestock and wildlife.

However, lions and the other carnivores are normally killed when they kill livestock. But that’s not the only threat the cats face, there’s habitat loss and concern over the increase in firearms.

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