Above: Lion defending his prey from Silver-backed jackals and Ruppell’s vultures listed Critically endangered on IUCN Red List in Soysambu Conservancy. By Rupi Mangat.
Published: The East African (Nation media) 30 November 2019
In the complex world of carnivore conservation in today’s rapidly changing landscapes, an annual two-day carnivore conference held at the Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi at the end of October brought together carnivore scientists and researchers from east and southern Africa including India.
The aim of the conference was to share the latest information and knowledge on carnivore conservation and management in range states like Kenya.
That the African lion and most carnivores are now critically endangered is a sobering thought. Over a century ago, Africa was a stronghold for big game. Lions the most powerful of the big cats numbered a million in 1900. By 1940s, the continent had 500,000. The current population in the wild is 23,000. Kenya’s lion population until recently was 2,000. It’s now on the wane.
Of the canines, the African wild dog was nearly exterminated in the wild across the continent, shot by ranchers to protect livestock. It’s only in recent times they are increasingly seen in protected areas due to conservation measures but their numbers are unknown leading scientists to step up research on population dynamics for effective conservation. It is proving to be a hard job for the Wild dog persecuted for decades knows how to keep away from humans as the Mara Predator team is finding. They have yet to fit a Wild dog with a satellite collar.
This year’s conference theme ‘Carnivore conservation in changing landscapes’ addressed the issues of increasing human settlement including livestock and agricultural expansion into wildlife areas. Added to this is the rapid infrastructure for development with roads, railways and transmission lines cutting through protected wildlife areas.
Challenges and Way Forward
For the carnivores, this results in increasing conflict between them and humans. Killed by poisoning, trapping and shooting, carnivore populations are on the decline except in areas that have a strong community involvement.
“I keep cattle and l don’t want leopards killing my livestock,” stated Ambrose Letoluai from Samburu in northern Kenya. Letoluai is a leopard scientist and project consultant at Loisaba Conservancy and Mpala Research centre. He comes from a community living in the wildlife-rich area which boasts wildlife conservancies on community land and a trio of national reserves, Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba that are the last strongholds for the big carnivores in the arid north, including critically endangered species like the Reticulated giraffe and Grevy’s zebra.
Using cutting-edge technology like satellite collars, smartphones and camera traps, Letoluai and the team of Samburu scouts are monitoring the extremely rare black leopard. Letoluai screens clips of the black cat at play with its normal coloured sibling. In the event that the leopards come close to community villages or livestock, the scouts are able to warn the herders. In addition, carnivore-proof cattle bomas are constructed to avoid predation. “Without community support, conservation cannot work,” he states.
Wildlife organizations like Ewaso Lions founded in 2007 in Westagate Conservancy bordering Samburu National Reserve follow the same principle of promoting human-wildlife coexistence through science. When the project began, only 11 lions were in the northern ecosystem. Today, the same area boasts over 50 lions.
The project is one of the first to involve local Samburu community in lion conservation. The women, known as ‘Mama Simba’ clad in Samburu finery are apt at collecting lion data as are the Samburu warriors monitor wildlife using a Global Positioning System (GPS). They report animal sightings, incidents of human-wildlife conflict, and illegal activities like poaching, discouraging people in their communities from killing predators in retaliation for hunting their livestock.
Strategies for Better Co-existence
It’s a view shared by Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity that campaigns to ‘Keep Wildlife in the Wild’. Amongst its campaigns is to ban canned hunting where captive bred animals like the big cats are raised in confined areas for fee-paying trophy hunters, a practise common in South Africa. There are more than 8,000 lions in 250 intensive lions breeding facilities.
However, there is not one solution that fits all in the matter of conservation.
“We need to collaborate with different partners,” says Dr Shadrack Ngene, head of the KWS species conservation and management.
Research is a vital component of conservation. “It is important to upscale programmes in carnivore recovery plans,” says Dr Ngene. “This includes securing carnivore habitats and working towards balancing conservation, livestock, infrastructure and people.”
“We need to involve physical planners to incorporate spaces for wildlife to migrate when designing infrastructure.”
“Managing species conflict is a challenging task,” adds Dr Patrick Omondi, heading KWS biodiversity, research and planning. “What do you do when you have lions crossing over to community areas or in our case into the neighbouring army barrack and you’re told, take your lions or we’ll deal with them. Do we kill the animal or move it when the problem is immediate?”
In the course of the two-day meet, moving problem-animals to another park is akin to transferring the problem to the new site.
“But thanks to technology,” he acknowledges, “we are able to monitor carnivore movement like Chalisa’s amazing journey.”
This is one of the major feats of modern technology. The Smartphone is an essential tool for wildlife managers monitoring carnivores and alerting livestock herders to avoid areas if they want to keep their stock safe.
The recommendations from the conference will inform the National Wildlife Conservation and Management Strategy 2030.
Papers presented from carnivore scientists ranged from conserving carnivores with community support, conflicts, current carnivore population and range land, methods on identification and monitoring by applying smart technologies, updates on disease outbreaks, translocation of problem animals, veterinary science, wildlife poisoning and how science in genetics is showing that there is more diversity in species than previously thought as in the case of the African lion.
A recently concluded ten-year study shows that African lions are two subspecies: the East and Southern while the West and Central are more closely related to Asian lions than to other African lions. Over the last 300,000 years lion populations have become separated by expanding deserts and rainforests. The IUCN red list gives a figure of 400 lions in West Africa with about a thousand in Central Africa. It shows the urgency of increased conservation for this sub-species.
To Move or Not to Move
One of the biggest dilemmas for wildlife managers is that of carnivores with a taste for humans as in Tanzania and livestock in Kenya.
In Tanzania the issue of the man-eaters was solved when the pride in Tarangire on Tanzania’s popular northern tourist circuit was moved 800 kilometers south to Selous National Reserve in an area that had no lions. Selous is Africa’s largest lion stronghold. Few survived the move.
Scientists point to the horrific stress that carnivores suffer during translocation and in the ‘new’ home. Most are killed by the resident populations or die in unsuitable habitats. Termed inhumane, long-term lion researchers see it as not resulting in conservation but transferring the problem to the new site.
On the other hand, European zoos euthanize 150 lion cubs a year because there is no place to move them. The emerging question is then whether translocating wildlife like lions is a public relations exercise to satisfy animal welfare organizations and the public or is it better to euthanize the cats.
In Kenya, a male lion is keeping lion researchers on their toes. Chalisa is a notorious cattle-raider from Lewa in northern Kenya. In 2017, he was moved to Tsavo East National Park, 600 kilometers south after the communities threatened to kill him. For a few days he stayed in the park but then found his way to the community lands and resorted to his old habits, killing cows at night. Following his movements via his satellite collar, Chalisa in January 2018 dared a 600-kilometer track from Tsavo East to Shompole Conservancy in southern Kenya, hiding in bushes around human habitation during the day and moving silently at night. He’s still out and about.
Lions of South African
By early 1900, lions (like the rhinos) had been nearly exterminated by trophy hunters in South Africa. After years of concentrated conservation efforts the population is at 3,100 with almost half in the famous Kruger National Park and the rest in privately-owned game farms that measure less than a hundred square kilometers. According to the South African Lion Working Group, all the areas are fenced and populations controlled to avoid excessive population growth. Measures taken are reducing the number of breeding females in a pride and trophy hunting. Kenya does not sport trophy hunting and has not yet taken such drastic measures as managing prides.