Post submitted by Andrew Stein.
It starts with an incoming text… “PrideInOurPrides- Lion 1 Inside Geofence 1. Follow the link for coordinates and mapped location.”
It’s 10pm after a long day in the field and one of our collared lions has entered the marshy wetland between the safety of their tourist concession home and the hostile villages to the north. Our study animals have been fitted with satellite tracking collars that inform our field staff via text when lions cross the prescribed line of mapping coordinates or ‘geofence’. This feature is handy for determining how often lions approach the village, but also allows us to establish trust with villagers by issuing an early warning when the collared lions are approaching high conflict zones.
After viewing the exact location of the lions, we begin the phone tree by sending texts to the village leaders who then inform their relatives and friends until the entire village is aware that predators are approaching. Tonight it’s “Eretsha,” a prime male named for the nearby village. He is often seen with another male and two adult females. After several months, these messages are becoming routine and villagers react in various ways. Some rise from their huts to ensure that their livestock are secure then light small fires to keep the lions away. Others roll over annoyed at the disturbance, unable to gather their stock after dark when they may encounter our lions, crocodiles, hippos and elephants. To be fair, when lions enter this marshy area, they don’t always enter the village – that is why we have also programmed Geofence2 to delineate the village boundary. Our collared lions rarely seem to cross Geofence2 but that does not mean that they are out of harm’s way.
Villagers are getting to know these lions and their habits. Through our outreach campaign, villagers have given our collared lions noble names of cultural significance. Eretsha lives in the western portion of our study area. We know him as the collared lion that breaches the geofence most often.
Mayenga or “Decorated by the Gods” is the younger of 2 females in a pride with 6 cubs. She associates with one male who is also collared but remains unnamed. Nduraghumbo or “Leader of the Homestead” is an older male that was part of a coalition that has disbanded after several males in the group were killed by villagers a few years ago. An uncollared female with a short tail named Maleherehere or “Sneaky One” is best known by villagers as the female who most frequently enters the village to kill livestock. She has three dependent cubs and remains the most controversial and elusive animal within our study area. After several darting attempts, we have yet to fit a collar on her to help warn villagers. Without an effective way to track her, we are unable to warn villagers when she is approaching. Our program is specifically concerned with the retaliatory killing of lions, specifically when villagers use poison. As our work continues, new individuals are being documented and photographs of unique whisker spots are incorporated into our database.
As we inform villagers about the trials of Mayenga, Nduranghumbo and others, we have not observed or received notification that any of the regional lions have been killed or poisoned in 2015. However, what we have learned is that the lions are only half the story. Conflicts remain substantial (32 known cases of livestock predation by lions) and villagers will eventually lose patience. In our first year of data collection, we are finding that the collared lions tend to stay south of the village, however, unattended livestock venture several miles into lion country where most of the conflict occurs. In previous generations, herding livestock was part of the cultural fabric of a migratory lifestyle. In recent years, communities have become sedentary and individuals have established semi-permanent homesteads and with this shift, herding has lost its significance. Unlike the herders of East Africa, the herders of southern Africa have lost their stature and receive little pay.
The consequences are clear. Unattended livestock overgraze close to home then venture further afield for water and fresh grass causing desertification and greater opportunities for predator conflict, stock theft, and disease to fester without treatment. Loss of livestock can be devastating to villagers who place tremendous cultural value on their livestock, yet their system of value is not readily apparent to foreigners when safety measures such as herding are not practiced. Many villagers have built corrals to restrict livestock movements at night, but few see these corrals as a method for protecting their livestock against predators.
With support from BCI, we have constructed 7 lion-proof corrals so far. Villagers are visiting, taking note and now gathering materials to build their own. These corrals are built with sustainably harvested, natural materials using the skills of local weavers.
As the corrals continue to gain traction, we are now proposing a collaring program for cattle to understand how they move in relation to the lions. Satellite trackers fitted to cattle and lions will be meshed to determine the conflict hotspots and the likelihood of conflict at varying distances. This will improve the effectiveness of our early warning concept. We will also pair these efforts with an experimental herd that is managed by a well-trained, well-paid herder that will demonstrate the value of herding. We will streamline the geofence approach with increased training and continue our outreach campaign for informing villagers of lion pride dynamics and facilitate field visits for village leadership.
Lions are quickly disappearing from the unprotected lands of Africa, hence the recent US listing of lions as an Endangered Species. Communities living among lions can be key conservation collaborators if their needs are respected and their input incorporated. Without community buy-in we may soon only see lions surviving tenuously in isolated protected areas. The time is now to build innovative collaborations between conservationists and communities to ensure that lions and villagers coexist. Pride in Our Prides is developing a much-needed model for human-lion coexistence. Solutions developed in Northern Botswana can be adapted to any other communally managed lion habitats in sub-Saharan Africa.
A big thank you to National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative and all of their supporters for providing the funds and feedback on this program. We are gaining the trust of our communities one day at a time through our outreach and with each day we are adapting our program to fit the needs of local people to promote coexistence with lions. Thank you.
Photographs provided by Andrew Stein.