For East Africa's lions, is the future bright?

Friday May 3 2013

Wildlife conservationists, faced with declining numbers of lions in East Africa, have come up with ways of keeping the remaining cats out of danger.

Wildlife conservationists, faced with declining numbers of lions in East Africa, have come up with ways of keeping the remaining cats out of danger. 

By RUPI MANGAT

A National Geographic advertisement captures it succinctly: “The cat’s hunting abilities are outstanding; he actively stalks his prey,” says the commentator. But the video shows a domestic cat chasing a little red laser light in a plush home with pristine white sofas. The message: If we do not do something fast to conserve the big felines, domestic cats might have to be used as a stand-in, and these are the kind of videos that the National Geographic will be forced to make to illustrate the life of lions, tigers, cheetahs and leopards.

East Africa is famous for its wildlife, and lions are at the top of the hierarchy. But researchers fear that lions may be extinct in a few decades.

Five decades later

The decline in Africa’s lion populations is staggering. Niels Morgensen, who founded Mara Naboisho Lion Project in Kenya in 2011, says Africa had 100,000 lions in 1960. Five decades later, there are just 30,000 left.

This decline points to what once would have seemed ludicrous, an inevitable extinction of the king of the jungle.

This is not an unlikely scenario. In 2010, the Barbary lion of North Africa, one of the eight African lion sub-species, was declared extinct in the wild. It had a long history of suffering at the hands of humans.

The earliest records show that ancient Egyptians killed the Barbary lions as they began to settle down to sedentary lives. The Barbary lion was even taken to Europe, especially Italy where ancient Romans used them in gladiator fights.

In the 12th century, King John of England established a zoo, one of the oldest in the world, which was later relocated to the Tower of London. When the tower’s moat was excavated in the 1930s, it revealed two medieval lion skulls of the Barbary lion.

With the spread of the Arabs in North Africa, the Barbary lion was seen as a nuisance and killed. Now, none exist in the wild.

Paltry population

Ten years ago, Kenya had 15,000 lions. Today, the population is a paltry 2,500 lions.

Niels Morgensen, working on his doctorate degree and curious about lions’ behaviour inside and outside protected areas in the Mara — renowned as the “big cat country” — studied how livestock affects them.

Attacks on cattle by lions are the bane of pastoral communities like the Maasai and Samburu. When they strike, the herders retaliate by killing the offending animals.

The need to save the king of beasts has spurred researchers and wildlife conservationists to seek solutions outside the confines of state-managed parks and reserves. They are now focusing on conservancies.

First project

Shivani Bhalla established the Ewaso Lions Project in October 2007, the first lion project in Samburu. She was working on her master’s degree.

To minimise the human-wildlife conflict in the area, Bhalla has been using lion lights — simple, solar-powered bulbs that flicker on and off — to keep the big cats away from people and their livestock.

“When people were threatening to kill lions, we decided this would be a good place to try the lion lights and installed three units. Since the installation, there have been no more lion attacks in the Ngare Mara area,” she says.

Under the Ewaso Lions Warrior Watch programme, Jeneria Lekilele, a Samburu moran and Bhalla’s assistant, has learnt to install the lion lights.

“To date, we have installed six in the region,” Bhalla says. “We are making mobile lights, which we can move around whenever there is a problem in an area. The lions get scared by the lights and stay away.”

She adds that the local community informs the conservationists of the presence of the cats near the villages.

“The Samburu are always on the radio or sending us text messages informing us of the siting of lions.”

The Ewaso Lions team monitors 40 lions in three prides, up from 27 in 2007.

But, in some areas, the residents are not tolerant of the lions. In January this year, a lion was killed near Buffalo Springs.

In the long rains season, the prey disperses out of the reserve, so the lions turn to the easier prey, livestock in the Ngare Mara.

She says when the lions started invading homesteads almost every night, they started working with the Nakuprat Conservancy to hold community meetings to forestall retaliatory attacks on the animals.

In the 200-square-kilometre Naboisho Conservancy, there are eight prides of about 80 lions. Morgensen has mapped their ranges and anyone can follow the movement of the collared lions on the on-line tracking site www.mnlp.org/map.

Only one pride stays inside the conservancy full time. Morgensen calls it the “core” pride. He has been following two other prides, one that lives partially inside the conservancy and the other in an unprotected area.

“It is important that we know the prides, their home ranges, how they move, and which variables influence their movement patterns, such as rainfall and drought,” he says.

Morgensen’s goal is to have the matriarch in each pride fitted with a GPS (Global Positioning System) collar because “females move within their true home ranges.”

Collaring lions has been successful in reducing human-lion conflicts in Samburu, Laikipia, Tsavo and Amboseli, as communities are forewarned of the lion’s movements and take measures to protect their livestock by, for instance, building better cattle sheds. But each collar costs a whopping $5,500, with a two-year battery.

In Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a former cattle ranch on a 90,000-acre area facing Mount Kenya, through which the Equator runs, lions would be shot on sight. Today, there are 68 lions, which tourists flock to see.

Wildlife corridors

Douglas Kamaru, who is part of the conservancy’s ecological and monitoring team, says besides collaring the lions, they have also fitted infra-red cameras in the wildlife corridors for the migrating elephants and other game across the Laikipia plateau.

“Each of the matriarchs in five of the six prides in the conservancy is collared,” he says. “Monitoring lions is important.”

Kamaru says 100 lions are killed each year, “which means that in the next 20 years there won’t be any lions left in the country if we don’t do something.”

The Kenya Wildlife Service, which is in charge of the nation’s wildlife, is working on a lion population census across the country, which is expected to be complete by next year. KWS says the results show stable populations, despite the pressure.

“Carnivore conservation in conservancies has improved, given the increased participation of the locals,” says Bernard Kuloba, the KWS carnivore conservation liaison officer. Communities participate in the annual carnivore conferences organised by KWS. There are many investors interested in establishing tourist hotels and camps in the community conservancies. Kuloba says this has led to direct benefits to communities.

Is optimistic

Asked what hope there is for lions in Kenya in the next 50 years if the human population increases at the same pace, Kuloba is optimistic.
“There is hope for lions, because more Kenyans are moving to urban areas. It is estimated that over 60 per cent of Kenyans will live in urban centres by 2030. When the land use plan is implemented, it will be compatible with conservation, which will mean reduced conflict. This will free more land in rural areas for conservation,” he says.

The country’s economy is shifting from dependence on agriculture to service industries that are urban-based. The national revenue stream is, therefore, expected to increase significantly once oil exploitation starts in the next 10 years.

“This is also likely to reduce dependence on an agriculture-based economy,” he says.