Winning with lions

Sunday September 13 2009
Shivani Bhalla

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

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.

The Ewaso Nyiro is a key dry season refuge for all animals. Yet there are too many lodges on its shores.

Developments upstream affect the water level. With more horticulture farms coming up, there is less water flowing downstream. Where the Ewaso Nyiro once flowed all the way to Lorian Swamp, it now disappears way before that.

This year’s drought has taken a heavy toll on wildlife, livestock and communities. For the first time in the living memory of the Samburu elders, the great river dried up in the middle of the year and that toofor many months. The droughts of 2002 and 2006 were also devastating for the animal leaving thousands dead and scattered.

“The Ewaso Nyiro River is the only source of water for most animals especially west of Samburu,” explains Bhalla.

“Further east, the Isiolo River and springs near Ngare Mara provide alternative water sources during this drought period. However, in the west, there are no alternative water sources. Without the waterholes in the river that either the elephants or the local people dig, there would be no water available at all.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of water, waterbuck, impala, warthog, donkeys and sheep have begun to die daily especially in the western part.”

FOR THE TIME BEING, THE lions of Samburu have not had it too bad: They lie along the river in wait and ambush the prey at their few waterholes that have been dug.

“However, this is short term for, with continued drought, their food sources will also be depleted. Also, due to the drought and the river drying up, there is more pressure on the reserves from livestock, increasing the human threat to lions,” cautions Bhalla.

“We hope to collar 6 lions to monitor their movements. To date, only one lion has been collared. Radio-collaring lions is an essential tool used to monitor the state of a given lion population.

The information is important for monitoring habitat use, especially near human settlements. Information on movements in and out of the protected areas is obtained using data from the radio-collars.”

Knowing the movements may well help save the last of the lions.

Bhalla is currently working on her PhD at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology.

“I plan to complete my PhD by 2010. But this is just the beginning of a long term programme,” says Bhalla.

Bhalla plans to open a research institute that will attract researchers and scientists into the area.

For more on Shivani Bhalla’s project visit