We are truly lucky to live and work in one of the few areas in South Africa where Lions still roam free outside of protected areas. They are, however, severely under threat from illegal, and irresponsible killing of them. We are joining forces with a number of other researchers and conservation groups working in the area to try to protect the last determined individuals in this precarious population.
Having been heavily persecuted in the past few decades, these Lions behave quite differently from "normal" Lions. They are very wary of people, are much less vocal than unpersecuted Lions, and also live in much smaller groups than they typical prides commonly seen in protected areas. It is not uncommon here for females to live alone, only meeting up with males to mate, and raising their cubs alone.
The picture to the left is of my daughter, aged 19 months, when we fitted a tracking collar to a male Lion on Mapungubwe National Park as part of an Endangered WIldlife Trust project. While normally we are not keen on the fitting of these collars, this is one of ths situations where we feel it is absolutely in the best interests of the animal. We have been able to see this Lion, nicknamed Fatboy due to his portly figure, move into Zimbabwe and back serveral times, as well as moving briefly onto South African farmland.
In this picture, we had just finished taking his measurements, and Leila wanted to have a go too. A large part of my motivation to save these Lions is that I do not want to have to look her in the eye one day and admit to having done nothing when she sees this picture and asks why there are no Lions here anymore. The Lions are part of our childrens Natural Heritage and they deserve to show them to their children.
This camera trap photo was taken by Bundox Wildlife Services
In order to best protect this population of Lions we need information. While studying I remember my favourite Professor telling me "In God we trust. All others must bring data" and he is absolutely right. If we do not have hard facts, we cannot make informed decisions. We need to know exactly how many Lions there are here, how far they are ranging and where they may be coming from. Fragmented populations are always at risk from inbreeding, but the light at the end of the tunnel with this population is that every now and then a new Lion pops up. They are not totally isolated from other Lions. A corridoor or corridoors exist somewhere. Using photographs from tourists where they are able to get them, and camera trap photographs such as this one taken by Bundox Wildlife Services - Wildside, we can keep a good record of all known lions and where they are moving. Collectively, we have good identification records of many of the Lions in the area and will keep this up to date on an ongoing basis.
The area where there may be Lions is enormous, and we know the densities are very low, so this is where the dogs really come into their own. To cover the entire area with camera traps would be very expensive and time consuming, but by taking in detection dogs trained onto Lion scat (droppings) we can quickly pick up where there are Lions, and in particular areas with high levels of activity so that we can target the camera trapping more efficiently. Lions are often typically surveyed with playing the calls of a distressed buffalo calf over a public address system, but where Lions are in areas of high densities of Spotted Hyeanas, and heavy persecution, this method may not be so effective.
Training dogs to find cat poo might not be the most glamourous job in the world, but the information we can get makes it more than worth it. By labelling exactly where each sample is collected, we can estimate numbers very effectively by creating DNA profiles from "owner" of the scat. This brings us to the next, and really exciting part of the project, where we are pioneering a technique to train our lab dogs to match samples to individual level. They will be able to sort the samples brought in by the field dogs into all the individuals. We can therefore see where each individual is moving as well as how many there are. This has been done successfully on Tigers, but is new to Africa. Our training samples are from known captive populations, and the samples from this study will be our trial on wild samples, and we will be testing the dogs against the DNA tests. Its a very exciting project, and it seems that Lion conservation in this little corner of Africa is going to the dogs. In Dog we trust, and THEY will bring the data.