Paola Bouley is on call as a first responder for lions in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. She is a National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee and the director and co-founder of Projecto Leões da Gorongosa. It’s the first ever lion research project in the history of the park.
Bouley and her team work to save lions in the wilderness every day. They’re documenting their recovery and doing the conservation and research necessary to lay the foundation for a strong restoration project. Bouley says, “We basically live and breathe bringing about a lion recovery in this park. Everything we do is focused on doing what we can to conserve and protect this population.”
Before Mozambique’s civil war, Gorongosa National Park was famous for its lions. Now the park is undergoing a remarkable recovery, but lions are not coming back as expected. The lions in the park are healthy, but wire snares primarily are limiting their recovery in the area. One in three lions in Gorongosa is either killed or maimed in poachers’ snares—and that includes cubs.
It can be gruesome. A rapid response veterinary unit is ready to intervene in lion emergencies, which include wire snares around a lion’s neck or a steel-jaw trap around a leg. The unit also treats wounds and infections. There are emergencies every week.
Bouley and the team actively track at least 34 lions each week. She says, “Right now the number stands at one in three. We are working really, really hard to really bring that number down. That’s the goal now.”
The lions aren’t the main target of the snares, though. “Poachers come into these parks,” Bouley says, “and they set snares to capture warthogs and impala and buffalo.” The lions are accidentally walking into the snares.
“It’s not that people intentionally want to kill lions. They’ve become incidental catch by the bush-meat trade,” the illegal commercial hunting for the meat of wild animals. Snaring has become an epidemic—in Gorongosa and across the continent of Africa. It’s also just one of the issues putting pressure on lion populations.
“Lions are critically threatened across the continent, and that’s because of increasing human pressures, encroachment, bush-meat trading, conflict with people, and cattle,” Bouley says. Even though lions live in national parks they still need protection. “It’s bad news but also good news, [because] that’s something we can actually do something about to really support a robust recovery of lions in the system.”
GPS units on lion collars are the most important tools for the lion project. The accumulation of data over months allows Bouley and her team to track and check on lions and deploy strategic antipoaching patrols. The collars send location information every four hours. That information helps them make strategic decisions about which areas to sweep for snares and steel-jaw traps that poachers are setting. “Through the Big Cat Initiative we bring in funding to collaborate with our park’s antipoaching unit … These GPS collars are our conservation anchors. We don’t have to spend days and days and days tracking them. We just get to our lions as fast as we can.”
Even when they know where the lions are, getting to them can be tricky. Gorongosa National Park is for the most part roadless. “Ninety percent of the time we are off-road. If we paved a highway through this park you could get across pretty fast, but there are no roads. What can take two hours in the United States to drive across is going to take something more like a day here in the park.” The wilderness includes harsh terrain and vast grasslands with big holes that people can fall into.
The coming year will not be easy for Bouley and the team. There are a lot of stresses on the ecosystem, including drought and civil conflicts. “We are in the middle of a very severe drought. It’s probably the most extreme drought that we’ve had here in about 40 years. People living around the park are running out of water, and crops are failing. It’s a very intense year from a human point of view. The other is that we are actually in the middle of a civil conflict. That complicates issues for us. We are really on guard. We know we are not expecting a good year, but we are ready,” Bouley explains.
The effort is paying off. When Bouley started in 2012, it was estimated that there were 30 to 50 lions in the entire park. Three years into their research there are 76 lions in just one-third of the park. Bouley says, “We know that there are more lions than were formerly estimated. We do sense that there is a recovery taking place. Things are heading in the right direction.”
Hanging out with lions and seeing the recovery are what keep Bouley motivated. “Honestly, they are magnificent. It’s a privilege to be able to work with these animals and to help save their lives,” Bouley says. “Gorongosa National Park is a place where we really believe we can make a difference for lions.”
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