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Travelling Lion Turns a Spotlight on the Species

Travelling Lion Turns a Spotlight on the Species

Travelling Lion Turns a Spotlight on the Species
Andrew Loveridge/Hwange Lion Research

The Hwange Lion Research Project of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit is one of the largest and longest running wild lion research projects in Africa. The project was started in 1999 by Dr Andrew Loveridge, at the invitation of and in collaboration with the Zimbabwe National Parks & Wildlife Authority, and has studied several generations of lions in the Park.          

The core of the project’s research is achieved through radio-telemetry and more recently the use of GPS collars, such as the one worn by our ‘Zambezi Traveller,’ which are fitted to individual lions and record data on their movements, supplying valuable information to researchers.  

Data retrieved from the lion’s GPS collar by Brent Stapelkamp, of the Hwange Lion Research Project, has revealed his route. “He travelled north from his home range, close to Hwange National Park’s Main Camp, in mid December, before travelling west along a line parallel but a couple of kilometres north of the main Hwange-Victoria Falls road, and then turning north again, reaching the Zambezi River in early January.

“Initially he meandered upstream on the southern side, before crossing the river around mid January at a point some 50 kilometres downstream of the Victoria Falls at midnight on the 15 January.          

“The GPS receiver in the collar records a positional point every hour, and shows the lion on the south bank at just before midnight and the north bank an hour later. He obviously swam the river, as indicated by his movement downstream where he crossed, the river being approximately 100 metres wide at this point.

“From here he circled inland and round to arrive on the outskirts of Livingstone on 22 January, having travelled a rough distance of at least on the map of 220 kms, although probably travelling a much greater distance on the ground.”

This lion is the sole remaining member of a coalition of four brothers, whose home territory for the last few years had been just outside Hwange National Park’s Main Camp area. The four were known to researchers as the ‘Dynamite Boys’ after the pan close to where this individual was first fitted with a GPS collar in 2005. At the time still sub-adults, and not yet mature enough to hold a territory of their own, they spent their time avoiding the dominant males in the area.

A few years later they established a territory for themselves, however, one by one the other members of the coalition were snared and killed, weakening the groups ability to control the territory and eventually leaving ‘Dynamite’ as the sole survivor. He is known to have finally lost his pride tenure to two younger males late last year and was last seen in the area of Sikumi Tree Lodge in December.

It’s a familiar fate for older male lions. At an age where he is unlikely to regain a territory or breeding pride, males like this typically become wanderers, frequently coming into conflict with livestock and local communities as a result. Unable to secure suitable territory and access to wild prey they get pushed into communal areas and often become livestock killers.       

The problem can become a matter of life and death for the individual lions involved. Often there is no option but to destroy the animals concerned. Previous attempts to relocate problem animals away from conflict areas have met with mixed success, and it is always likely that lions with a history of cattle raiding will re-offend.         

Dr Andrew Loveridge, director of Hwange Lion Research, explains: “The priority for lion conservation has to be to minimise human-wildlife conflict and limit impacts large carnivores have on people’s livelihoods by finding ways people can live in close proximity with them. Current research by HLR, in collaboration with ZimParks, into conflict between people and lions hopes to assist the future management of these issues with benefits for both local farmers and lion conservation.”      

Having been eradicated from over 80% of their historic range, lion populations in Africa have declined drastically in the last few decades and there may be as few as 20,000 wild lions remaining.

Conservationists are concerned that lion populations are increasingly becoming restricted to isolated National Parks and other protected areas, their geographic range limited by the loss of suitable wild habitat with sufficient prey species to maintain healthy populations. “This fragmentation of population ranges causes potential problems, with isolated populations becoming genetically inbred and prone to extinction in the long term,” said Loveridge.

Importantly there are thought to be only six contiguous populations of at least 1,000 adults, the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem (Kenya and Tanzania); the Selous Game Reserve complex and Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystems (both in Tanzania); the Lower Zambezi-Luangwa complex (Zambia); the Kafue-Kavango-Hwange region (Angola, Botswana, Nambia, Zambia and Zimbabwe) and the Greater Kruger ecosystem (South Africa and Mozambique).

“Without wildlife corridors to allow movement between populations their future genetic viability may be at risk. Large, wide ranging carnivores need to be conserved at the landscape level; it is not enough to conserve small isolated populations that are vulnerable to extinction,” said Loveridge.

These issues highlight the importance of cross-border conservation efforts, such as the KAZA trans-frontier park initiative, which aims to unify conservation efforts over large areas of north-western Zimbabwe, north-eastern Botswana and south-western Zambia.

Finally, the story of our lion raises the issue of how authorities deal with human-wildlife conflict and problem animals. It’s a shame that the first wild lion to be sighted in the Livingstone area for so many years has ended up being captured. It would have been even sadder if he had been shot as a problem animal.        

The challenge now for the Zambian Wildlife Authority is to find a suitable wild site, supporting sustainable numbers of wild prey species, and away from any potential livestock conflict, where they can consider releasing this animal. The complication is that any such release should also aim not disrupt local lion populations, which could result in other lions being displaced and pushed into conflict areas.        

It is unlikely that he will be repatriated to Zimbabwe, especially as to re-release him back into his old home patch would only bring him back into conflict with the two males who displaced him from his territory towards the end of last year and started him on his travels. For now the future of this Zambezi traveller remains in the balance.        

The author would like to thank Dr Andrew Loveridge, his Hwange Lion Research team and Marleen Post of Sikumi Tree Lodge, for their assistance with this article.

Other related stories in this issue:
The Amazing Zambezi Traveller
Lion Captured Near Livingstone
Travelling Lion Turns a Spotlight on the Species

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 08, March 2012)

Zambezi Traveller Directory:
Hwange Lion Research

UPDATE, JAN 2013

After nearly a year in captivity it was eventually decided to relocate and release Dynamite into a reserve in Zambia. After all the agreements were made and paperwork was completed, Dynamite unfortunately died during the translocation (in December 2011).